The Ghost War by Alex Berenson

Cover of "The Ghost War"
Cover of The Ghost War

You had to think Alex Berenson felt a little pressure on his second book.  The first won an Edgar Award after all and ended with its hero saving New York City from a biological attack.  How to top that?

In The Ghost War Berenson continues the exploits of John Wells while mixing in a little more geopolitical tension.  Here is how Publishers Weekly describes it:

Having foiled an al-Qaeda plot targeting Times Square in 2006’s The Faithful Spy (which won an Edgar Award for best first novel), maverick CIA agent John Wells confronts a very different threat in this pulse-pounding sequel from New York Times reporter Berenson. When the CIA’s efforts to extract Dr. Sung Kwan, a North Korean scientist and an invaluable source on Kim Jong Il’s nuclear ambitions, result in the deaths of Kwan and the rescue team, Wells’s significant other, Jennifer Exley, searches to identify the person in U.S. intelligence who compromised Kwan’s security. Meanwhile, Wells returns to Afghanistan, the scene of much of the action in The Faithful Spy, to find out what outside country has been helping the Taliban reassert itself. While the mole hunt will be familiar to genre buffs and the characters and the perils they face aren’t as nuanced as those in John le Carré or even David Ignatius, the author’s plausible scenario distinguishes this from most spy thrillers.

If the first book was focused on the character of Wells, the second book is propelled more by the looming conflict between China and the US.  It also introduces the stress and strains involved in the relationship between Wells and Exley.

Berenson continues to give you a variety of perspectives as you see the action through the eyes of multiple characters.  As the plot points touched on by PW above reveal, he builds up a series of seemingly unrelated but ultimately interconnected threats and/or plot threads.  North Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, and China all play a part.

But the big picture is China.  The tension builds as Berenson lays out a plausible scenario whereby the US and China could find themselves on the brink of war.

More below.Robert Kaplan notes the strengths and weakness of Berenson well in his NYT review of The Ghost War.  First, the good:

In “The Ghost War,” the New York Times reporter Alex Berenson has fashioned a smart, economically written spy novel that imagines a future clash with the Chinese. As such, it’s a novel for policy wonks, with a very sophisticated vision of how a conflict with China could come about, akin to the kind of war-gaming scenarios that occupy Washington strategists.

[. . .]

The plot moves quickly, in tight, essayistic paragraphs that show Berenson’s command of such disparate worlds as the United States Navy and Chinese migrant workers. I once spent a month aboard a destroyer in the Pacific and can attest to the accuracy of the author’s portrayal of one. His description of a semi-starving Chinese laborer who starts a riot, and whose only memory of home and his dead parents is a baseball hat that a policeman grabs from him, is vivid and moving.

And then the not so good:

Like many novels of this genre, “The Ghost War” is too mechanical in its plot and lacks the baroque character development for which John le Carré is famous. The protagonist, a Central Intelligence Agency officer named John Wells, is a two-dimensional variation of derring-do types common to other spy books. (Much more successful is Berenson’s study of the American mole, Keith Robinson, whose family tragedy leads him in stages to betray his country.) Moreover, the lavish descriptions of military technicalities can sometimes be distracting from the plot and the characters themselves. But Berenson is not trying to be le Carré. Rather, he displays a reporter’s fine awareness of headlines over the horizon.

How much you want to bet Berenson is tired of the le Carre thing?

But Kapaln, and PW, make a valid point.  Berenson’s books are not in the more literary vein of spy fiction.  They are geopolitical; reporting with a fictional thriller twist for entertainment.

John Wells had an interesting start as the first Western spy to infiltrate Al Qaeda, but he isn’t a particularly deep character.  I think Berenson makes up for this with what Kaplan calls “tight, essayistic paragraphs.”  The characters may lack depth but the story has a wide perspective and a pace that limits the harm.  The characters aren’t really the point so much as the larger story.  The fact that the big picture story fits together in a plausible and exciting way is what gives the books their force.

The climatic, twisting and turning ending of the first book set a high bar for its sequel.  And despite any minor quibbles or complaints, The Ghost War clearly cleared that hurdle in my opinion.  It has a unique and plausible plot with plenty of action and suspense.

As Kaplan notes, Berenson takes newspaper headlines and imagines how those tensions and conflict might play out behind the scenes.  The result is entertaining and even thought provoking.  So let’s leave le Carre out of it from now on.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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