In need of a sea change from my recent spate of books, this week I decided to read a spy novel. In need of something/someone new, as I had long since exhausted my supply of Robert Ludlum supply, this time I was forced to go on a search. I eventually settled on “Agents of Innocence”, the first novel by David Ignatius. Ignatius is probably best known as the Washington Post foreign policy commentator and occasional guest on shows the likes of Fareed Zakaria GPS (on which Agents of Innocence was once book of the week). In his first novel, Ignatius brings his enormous knowledge of foreign policy and politics to bear, as he deftly negotiates the shadowy world of “intelligence” in the Middle East. Ignatius has somehow managed to thread the needle between entertaining and informative, and has included a healthy bit of moralising for good measure.

Although featuring a prominent disclaimer making it abundantly clear that it is a fictionalized portrayal (of the Beirut in particular, but also the Middle East, Lebanon, the PLO, Fatah, Black September, Israel, Mossad etc.), the novel somehow rings true as it unfolds on a backdrop of real events and people. Set in the years between 1969 and 1984, it follows a CIA man named Tom Rogers and his two Palestinian operatives (Fuad and Jamal Ramlawi), as they attempt to negotiate the covert war, taking place in the Middle East. Along the way we are treated to many insights of the Middle East from multiple points of view, as Ignatius finds a way to introduce a myriad of other characters, side stories and commentary on the events of the day (such as the Munich Olympics). Through this plot device, we bear witness to what I consider the seminal aspect of the story; the fear and gut wrenching determination to protect his people of an Israeli Mossad Agent pitted against an equally determined and fearful Palestinian resistance. For those of us who are fortunately outsider observers of this mess it provides a lot to think about.

As you would expect from someone who makes a living writing and commenting on foreign affairs, the book is beautifully written and researched. However, possibly due to how much material Ignatius has to cover, and how much information he wishes to get across (he is an academic after all), the book does suffer greatly from occasional and unfortunate lapses in action. So much so, that it quite vividly failed my most basic test: it took me more than a week to read. In the beginning, I found myself making any and all excuses to either drop the book or postpone reading it entirely. Early on it reads like a story written by someone more interested in the bureaucracy of “intelligence” work, than someone interested in the intrigue and suspense. However, it does get remarkably better towards the end. So much so, that I was barely able to put the book down for the last third. If you can bear the build up, it is well worth the wait.

“Agents of Innocence” is an incredibly detailed and nuanced look into the daily intrigue of  “intelligence” in the Middle East. For anyone interested in this area of the world, or anyone interested in the spy game beyond car chases and stopping “baddies”, it is very much recommended. For all the others, maybe go pick up one of the James Bond books (which I have now done, and will be reviewing shortly).

Title: Agents of Innocence

Author: David Ignatius

Pages: 448 (Paperback)

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

ISBN-10: 0393317382

ISBN-13: 978-0393317391

Josh’s Rating: 3/5

Amazon Link: Agents of Innocence