- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2009

Joy, joy, the pig is back!

Snorting and snuffling and causing havoc in its path, it scampers through The Pig Comes to Dinner (Delphinium, $22.95, 208 pages) a lyrical Irish vignette, the second of Mr. Caldwell’s porcine trilogy that is written with more charm and grace than any pig has a right to expect.

You could not ask for more, but just in case, the author has added two ghosts to the cast of colorful characters at Castle Kissane, which has a horrid history of tyranny and death, and is now the home of newlyweds Kathy McCloud and Kieran Sweeney. In true Irish fashion, they hated each other until they discovered they loved each other, and the only impediment to their marital bliss is that they fall in love with their sad little specters.

They can hardly be blamed for kindly feelings toward Brid and Taddy, teenage lovers hanged 200 years earlier as a warning to others in the course of the fiendish English Lord Shaftoe’s determination to find the gunpowder buried by Irish villagers in the hope of blowing up both him and the castle.

Beautiful Brid weaves on an empty loom in a tower room while handsome Taddy plays a harp without strings. Their beauty is marred only by the scarlet welts of the hangman’s rope on their necks, and on occasions of stress, they appear hanging hideously side by side from the roof of the castle’s great hall. They won’t talk to Kathy and Kieran, but they are a vivid presence even if they are dead and they, like the pig, have a reason for being there.

Where is the pig? That rambunctious animal plays a more important role than you would think this time around. It starts out as a wedding present to the bride and groom from an American cousin who will not soon be forgiven. As the plot unwinds with the appearance of a descendant of Lord Shaftoe who still wants the castle, the explosive question of hidden gunpowder arises once more.

Nobody ever found it and there is no reason to think it still isn’t there, waiting to do its long overdue job and avenge the cruel deaths of Brid and Taddy.

All these domestic shenanigans get in the way of Kathy’s previously thriving literary career. She has profited handsomely from rewriting classics — for example, in “Jane Eyre,” her version has Mr. Rochester dying in the fire and Jane becoming a close friend of his mad wife. She is currently working on a new version of George Eliot’s “The Mill on the Floss” that she refers to as “The Bloody Mill on the Bloody Floss.”

But she is distracted by the combined presence of the supernatural and of the pig that likes to cuddle up to the herd of cows that often sleep in the great hall at Castle Kissane. There is even a horse race in which one of the entries is blessed with the name “Pig O’ My Heart.” And in the end, it takes a fey little boy with perception beyond his years to finally resolve the mystery of the haunted castle. A truly Irish child.

There is a belated happy ending for Brid and Taddy, and of course, for the pig. Even given that the irrepressible beast ostensibly winds up its current existence as a magnificent meal, fear not. It will be back.

•••

With George Clooney reportedly set to star in a movie version of this spy epic, Mr. Steinhauer should be a happy man. He can also congratulate himself on a disclosure if not an illumination of the dark and intricate web that lies at the heart of the intelligence community, emphasing the sinister and unhappy nature of such a life.

The Tourist (Minotaur, $24.95, 416 pages) is a sequel to the first chronicle of Milo Weaver, a CIA operative and one of the inner circle known as “tourists” who operate in deepest anonymity as they ply their strange trade around the world. Weaver’s days as a tourist ostensibly are over, and he is struggling to live a normal life with his wife and child without constantly looking over his shoulder for the threats in the shadows. He is, as you would expect, too optimistic.

Once a spy, always a spy, he discovers in the bloody postscript to his career in which he is burdened with dangerous revelations from a deadly captured assassin known as “the Tiger.” The unhappy Weaver finds himself again engulfed in deception, death and paranoia, with a bitter twist at the end just when you thought you’d unraveled it all.

Mr Steinhauer is a snake charmer of a storyteller, taking global and psychological leaps as he moves deftly through the pervasive gloom. He has been quoted as saying his fascination with spy novels began with John LeCarre’s classic “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and his plotting is reminiscent of Mr. LeCarre at his most convoluted. The book is the second of a trilogy about the life and times of a super spook and Mr. Steinhauer has already disclosed that the third will wind up, doubtless in a dark and dramatic flourish, at the Beijing Olympics.

The reader can assume more misery is in store for Weaver, a man who in his current incarnation undergoes a terrifying experience at Disney World, of all places, as well as being viciously tortured as a reminder that things haven’t got any better. The book is summed up by an intelligence colleague of Weaver as he assesses the changes in the rules of espionage in the 21st century.

“We can bomb and maim and torture to our heart’s content,” the veteran asserts, “because only the terrorists are willing to stand up to us, and their opinion doesn’t matter.”

The message is that in espionage, you can’t ever trust anyone. Weaver himself bleakly acknowledges that he has chosen a life that he describes succinctly as “miserable.”

And he can’t get out of it because the author is unlikely to kill him off yet.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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