- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 31, 2008


By Peter Steiner

Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Minotaur, $24.95, 276 pages


One could call Peter Steiner’s novel “L’Assassin” a thriller. But it’s more than that. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “L’Assassin” is a morality tale wrapped in a mood piece inside a thriller.

The book’s unlikely hero is a 67-year-old American expatriate, a former CIA case officer named Louis Morgon. Thirty-some years before “L’Assassin” takes place, Morgon was hounded out of CIA by his one-time friend and mentor, Hugh Bowes. Morgon’s marriage was shattered, and he became estranged from his children.

Disgraced, discredited, and dishonored, Morgon moved to France. There, he found by chance a house in the tiny, rustic, provincial Loire Valley village of Saint Leon sur Deme, a place where “the smell of rosemary hung in the air, like a promise, or a memory,” and tried to put the shards of his life back together again. He took up with a local woman named Solesme Lefourier; he began to paint and started a garden.

During the ensuing years, his nemesis Hugh Bowes, “nearsighted, pallid, fat, and dangerous,” becomes an American Mandarin — a secretary of state, the intimate of presidents, a powerful big-money lawyer and an archetypal Washington insider. But there is a cancer gnawing at Bowes. It is a white hot hatred of Morgon “as profound and undeniable as it was unfathomable and absurd.”

The bottom line: Hugh Bowes wants to see Louis Morgon ruined, dead, or both. To cause Louis Morgon’s downfall, Hugh Bowes creates a malevolent geopolitical souffle that involves the White House, the State Department, the CIA, indeed, the full weight of the entire U.S. government. He convinces one and all that Morgon is a rogue who, from a tiny, anonymous village in rural France, is the leader of a dangerous al Qaeda cell that is plotting a spectacular, lethal strike.

The president is in the final lap of a tough re-election campaign. And he’s behind. Osama bin Laden is still at large. The Global War on Terror is flagging. The president needs some kind of palpable victory to guarantee a win. And so he unleashes Hugh Bowes to neutralize Louis Morgon’s (nonexistent) terror cell.

Most of this information is set out in the book’s first 40 or so pages. And the only remaining question is whether Mr. Steiner can invent enough twists and turns to keep us fully engaged for the next 20-plus chapters.

The happy answer is a resounding yes. Mr. Steiner is a talented writer. He unpeels his characters like so many onions, one layer at a time, revealing their strengths and weaknesses, their foibles and idiosyncrasies. He has a good understanding of tradecraft. His action scenes are more realistic than cartoonish - when people get hit in “L’Assassin,” they hurt. And his plotting, even though you know basically what the outcome is going to be, keeps you guessing.

It’s also refreshing to discover a novel whose protagonist is not a thirtysomething superhuman former SEAL or ageless Delta Force mannequin, but a wily old guy who isn’t afraid to use dementia as a ruse when, on the run from the authorities, he needs to slip across an international border.

Best of all, Mr. Steiner makes France itself a major character in the book. He obviously is smitten by the country and the French. He loves its food, its gardens, its fast trains and the way the light plays in the evenings. He understand its people and all their Gallic eccentricities, especially their elephantine bureaucracy. And he manages to create wonderful fictional landscapes — there are no towns named Saint Leon sur Deme or Pen’och to be found in the Michelin Guide, although both places vividly come to life in Mr. Steiner’s book — interweaving them with actual locations.

Early on, for example, Louis Morgon goes on a solitary walking trip in Brittany. To get there he takes a train from Le Mans. “He watched,” Mr. Steiner writes, “the landscape fly past, like a sped-up movie, like a sped-up life. Wires swooped exuberantly above the fields, cows grazed for an instant, villages appeared and disappeared in a flash… .Then the landscape flattened out, and before long the train slowed and arrived in Quimper, the capital of that region of Brittany known as the Finistere.

“The Finistere, le Finistere, is the westernmost part of France, a thick finger of land in the north below the English Channel, which reaches far into the ocean and toward the new world… .It is a windswept and bitter landscape, buffeted by frequent storms. Its people have long been cut off from the rest of France by their culture, and by their language, and consequently they are tough and solitary and self reliant. Their flag is black and white… .During the time of Caesar, the Roman soldiers stationed in these far reaches found life here to be utterly lonely and desolate. It was beautiful in its way but it was a world too far from gentle Italy, so they called it finis terrae, which in Latin means the end of the earth.”

It is to Mr. Steiner’s credit that almost all of the major themes of “L’Assassin” are condensed into those short paragraphs. “L’Assassin,” at its core, is a book about the solitary, sometimes bitter landscape of spycraft, and the emotional and psychological havoc the conduct of intelligence gathering - that proverbial wilderness of mirrors - sometimes wreaks upon its practitioners. It is a novel whose characters are, like le Finistere’s flag, drawn in black and white. From time to time, Louis Morgon himself resembles le Finistere - bitter and buffeted.

Like when, discouraged and frustrated he rails, Lear-like, at his son Michael, “They call it intelligence, but it seems just the opposite to me now. To my way of thinking, it is stupidity. It is nothing but lies stacked upon lies… .

“If we were gathering intelligence, then that would make us smarter, wouldn’t it? We should know more now than we did when we started. But look at us. If anything, we know less. And it’s always that way. We think we know more, but we know less.”

I don’t know why, but when I read Morgon’s angry, contemptuous words, the disgraced former director of central intelligence George Tenet’s memorable phrase “It’s a slam dunk!” immediately came to mind.

John Weisman’s most recent CIA novels, “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action,” are available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at [email protected]

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