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'American Spy' Is A Thrilling Debut With No Simple Answers

About halfway through John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, its wise old hero George Smiley is discussing the inherent paradox of the cover stories that spies adopt. "The more identities a man has," Smiley says, "the more they express the person they conceal."

This fan-dance of identity — with its many concealments and revelations — is central to American Spy, an excitingly sharp debut novel by the talented newcomer Lauren Wilkinson.

Spanning three decades and leapfrogging from New York to the Caribbean to the West African nation of Burkina Faso, this literary thriller leads us into unfamiliar territory. It portrays a little known slice of American interventionism and it shows us the workings of the intelligence community through the eyes of an African-American woman.

The book's heroine and narrator is Marie Mitchell, a one-time FBI agent, whose tale, like so many spy yarns, begins with an action sequence: An intruder breaks into her Connecticut home to murder her. With her young twin sons in tow, she flees to her mother's home in Martinique. And from there this smart, contradictory woman begins writing a letter to her sons explaining how she became a target, centering on two key periods of her life. This letter is the book we're reading.

We follow Marie's childhood in '60s New York, when she worships her larger-than-life sister, a wannabe secret agent who later dies under mysterious circumstances. And we follow Marie again in the 1980s, when she's become an ambitious but frustrated FBI agent in the New York bureau doing small-time work she doesn't believe in: She gets snitches to spill info on a harmless Pan-African group that the feds think is radical.

Things pick up when Marie is approached by a slippery CIA man named Ross. He recruits her for an undercover mission involving the Marxist leader of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, a real life historical figure who was known as the "Che Guevara of Africa."

Sankara is coming to New York to address the U.N., and Marie's mission is to, um, cozy up to the radical. She does. And as she begins falling under the charismatic Sankara's spell, Ross sends her to Burkina Faso for a secret operation whose goal is something he won't tell her.

And I won't tell you. Yet rest assured that American Spy will not only keep you turning the pages, it will do much more than that. Wilkinson steeps her thriller in a complicated awareness of huge, thorny themes: race, Cold War amorality, the politics of our intelligence services and the ease with which we can become complicit with deeds we actually abhor.

Marie lives in a world in which identities are fluid — light-skinned blacks pass for white, colleagues pass for friends, traitors pass for allies, intelligence agents pass for defenders of liberty. Marie herself has many identities, starting from the fact that she's a black woman trying to make it in a society run by white men, which means — as her policeman father tells her — that she's already living the double life of a spy. "It's easier," he says, "if they think you're one of them." Small wonder that Marie finds herself inspired by Sankara, a man who says, and acts on, what he truly believes.

All this has gotten American Spy compared to le Carré, and though it's not as elegantly tooled as the master's finest — the historical background sometimes gets a bit sticky — Wilkinson earns the comparison. Like le Carré, she knows that intelligence agencies are run by individuals protecting their own interests — which in Marie's case means the famously-white white men of the FBI and the CIA who look down on black agents, doubly so a black woman.

And just as le Carré never tires of showing the ruthlessness of the British ruling elite, so Marie reminds us of America's own dark practices — be it the FBI's role in the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton or the CIA's role in the toppling and murder of popular foreign leaders our government didn't like. If you're at all romantic about American intelligence agencies, Wilkinson will make you wonder if you should be.

In recounting her life as an American spy, Marie wants her sons to both understand what she did and to learn from it. And what exactly should they — and we — learn from an anti-communist mother drawn to a Marxist revolutionary, a black woman who served a white power structure that she knew kept her down? The simple answer is that there are no simple answers, no moral absolutes in politics or in life. If you divide the world into the damned and the saved, Marie tells us, you've missed the point of her story.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.