Former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson blends fact and fiction so seamlessly in his new thriller, “The Midnight House” (Putnam), that you get the feeling you are learning how things really work in the intelligence community.
Berenson’s protagonist John Wells is a CIA agent who believes in his country — and who knows that in the post-9/11 environment the lines between “us” and “them” have become very vague — but there isn’t an ounce of jingoism in the character or the story.
Wells is a realist in the tradition of some of the men John LeCarre wrote about in his Cold War era intelligence novels, but Berenson eschews the cynicism that has turned off some of LeCarre’s readers.
In the new book, Wells is in New Hampshire on a leave of absence when he is called back to Washington for a very tough case. Someone is murdering the former members of a joint CIA/Army unit that was interrogating detainees suspected of being terrorists.
The prisoners were flown to a secret outpost in Poland — via the “rendition” program — where they were questioned and perhaps subjected to torture.
One of Wells’s special gifts as a spy is his ability to blend into the Arab world — he is a Muslim and in an early section of the book we follow him as he goes undercover in Cairo, posing as a Kuwaiti.
Berenson’s decision to make his protagonist a Muslim is just one of the many brilliant strokes that separates his novel from a routine thriller dealing with terrorism and the Middle East.
“The Midnight House” is not an anti-American screed about the terrible things our government has done to suspected terrorists over the last nine years; it’s an examination of the challenges we face in trying to be decent while preventing our cultural and political enemies from pulling off another 9/11-style assault.
The novel cuts back and forth from Wells’s investigation to the activities in Poland in 2008 where he introduces the most interesting character in the book — Rachel Callar, the doctor stationed at the rendition compound whose job it was to monitor the psychological states of the prisoners.
Callar apparently committed suicide upon her return to the United States, but Wells and CIA staffers begin to wonder if she might have been murdered like the other Americans in Poland.
The investigators start off with the belief that the killers are Islamic terrorists, but as they find out more about the victims and what went on in Poland, they’re not so sure.
Berenson expands his narrative to show us in a horrifying flashback how one of the prisoners came to be a terrorist. The author doesn’t try to justify the character’s actions, but he does try to give the reader some understanding of how a video game-addicted teen boy decides to become a suicide bomber.
“The Midnight House” is so smart and so informative and so humane that it stands far above most other contemporary espionage novels. Now, I can’t wait to get to the earlier books in Berenson’s series (the writer’s debut novel, “The Faithful Spy,” won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for best first novel in 2007.)