November 26, 2011


A Novel of the CIA
by Susan Hasler
320 pages, St. Martin’s Press

Review by Anthony Barker

‘Normal’ is a relative term. Heterocephalus glaber (the naked mole-rat) is a species almost too repulsive to contemplate. Hairless and misshapen, they spend their lives groping through deep tunnels, eating whatever tidbits they happen upon and having sex with any of their kind who do not bite back. They survive without much oxygen, and having evolved underground they may actually require the pressure of the surrounding earth to keep themselves from coming apart.

Susan Hasler’s book, Intelligence, brought them to mind.

Writing about intelligence agencies has evolved over the decades. The masterful James Bond was a figment the fifties and sixties. The dusty, professorial George Smiley, sifting through old records to detect past treachery, evokes the cynicism of the seventies and eighties. Hasler, a retired CIA analyst, shows us the dedication (and the frustration) of analysts searching for needles in haystacks of miscellaneous reports, trying to detect a terrorist plot.

Hasler calls her fictional agency ‘the Mines’, but the building they work in is surprisingly similar to that structure in Langley, Virginia which bears the ironic inscription, ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ We can safely presume that the windowless cubicles, the miles of subterranean corridors, cramped conference rooms, claustrophobic security, and especially the irritable, paranoid and depressive personalities of the analysts, are a faithful representation of place and personnel.

No wonder. They are under immense pressure—pressure unrelieved since 9/11.

It need hardly be said that most of them are women—for whenever a tedious, low prestige job requires care and diligent attention to detail, most of the workers will be women. Nor need we add that their obtuse, hypocritical, manipulative bosses are mostly male.

And yet, while holding the moral high ground, the analysts feel guilty. They were implicitly blamed for the 9/11 debacle (‘massive intelligence failure’) and are certain to be blamed for the next one, no matter that they are working 15 hour days on the impossible task of predicting the future. They are neurotic, overstressed, sleepless. Their dreams are splattered with bodies. Unable to attend to their broken marriages and impaired children, they substitute co-dependent relationships with pet rabbits, possums and stray cats. It is not a pretty sight, and yet it seems plausible, and (sometimes) kind of funny.

I will not reveal the plot except to say that the author follows a developing terrorist attack through the viewpoints of team leader Madeleine James, PhD., and other members of her search team. Hasler also grants us an occasional glimpse into the brain of the jihadist. This makes for tense, fast moving chapters and keeps various sub-plots separate from the main story. The method works well given that the search involves different skills and personalities. 

I did not find Ms. Hasler’s writing about love or sex particularly persuasive. Only the most geriatric, inhibited, hypocritical, or otherwise unlikely characters seem to attempt it. But what do I know about love in Fairfax County? I’m going to give her a ‘pass’ on that as she writes so well about the procedures and problems of the intelligence community. And let’s be fair—no matter how much women boast about multi-tasking, it’s probably hard to pursue orgasms and mass murderers at the same time. 

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