It is thus fitting that Buckley’s successor at National Review, Rich Lowry, is trying his hand at the genre. Banquo’s Ghosts (Vanguard Press, 2009, 344pp.), co-written with author and literary agent Keith Korman, is both an adventurous thriller and a sobering commentary on America’s national security predicament.
The book focuses on protagonists Stewart Banquo and Peter Johnson. The former is an aging, old-fashioned CIA spymaster who has drifted farther and farther away from the intelligence establishment over the years. Whereas Johnson swears by imaginative human intelligence methods, the intelligence community is increasingly content with satellite imagery and other high-tech tools. And while Banquo’s tactics are daring and aggressive, his agency has evolved into a typical nine-to-five bureaucracy, mostly concerned about pen-pushing and diversity seminars. Though Banquo’s small New York office is ignored by officials in Langley, the old spook enjoys a degree of autonomy that comes with neglect.
Johnson, for his part, is a bit of a hack. He writes indictments of US policy for a left-wing magazine called The Crusader. Though Johnson shares the publication’s political principles, his personal principles are closer to non-existent: women, liquor, and easy cash tend to be Johnson’s day-to-day priorities. Naturally, he is three-times divorced. Despite living with his daughter, he is withdrawn from her life.
After Banquo’s team renders a favor to a drunken Johnson one night, the spymaster conceives and initiates a bold plan. Banquo recruits Johnson into his organization, training the well-heeled writer in the basics of espionage. At first, the unlikely relationship is sustained coercively; Johnson’s past offers plenty of fodder for blackmail. Gradually, however, Johnson comes to trust and respect the earnest professionalism of Banquo’s little shop. Finally, Johnson embarks on his grand mission: gain access to Iran’s nuclear program by brandishing his sympathetic left-wing credentials—and then assassinate the country’s chief nuclear researcher.
The operation does not go as planned, but it does lead Banquo’s team—his “Ghosts”—onto the trail of a deadly Iranian plot. At this point, the story becomes a race against time. Banquo’s Ghosts must battle everything from vindictive bureaucrats to secret jihadi cells in order to thwart the operation. And the cost of failure, as they gradually come to learn, is nothing short of horrific.
The book is well-written on the whole. It must be said, however, that the highly informal “lemme-tell-ya-how-it-is” style is somewhat hit-or-miss, and it certainly cannot be mistaken for high literature. On Johnson’s training sessions at Banquo’s office: “Every day was pledge night, the hazing going on for years. And Johnson was sick of the paddle.” On the town of Danbury: “Welcome to Nowhereville, North Carolina.” Then again, the writing definitely has its moments, as when the viewpoint of a Chinese delegation in Iran is related à la MasterCard: “Sales of Red Chinese missile parts to the Iranian Ministry of Defense: $1.3 billion. Import guarantees of light crude—$750 million. A twenty-five year bargain to develop natural gas: $100 billion—A table full of grumpy Russians spilling caviar onto their ties and trying to explain why Soviet-designed planes kept falling out of the skies—priceless.” And while the pace of the first parts of the book is fairly slow, the story develops toward a high-adrenaline conclusion that leaves little to be desired in the way of excitement.
Literary aspects and entertainment value notwithstanding, the book is as much a political enterprise as anything else. Lowry definitely wants to get some messages across.
One central point the book drives home is that relations between the US and other countries are not just about us. Throughout the book, there are characters who promulgate a rather introverted view of the world– how did we cause this? What can we do to improve relations? What kind of negotiations can we initiate? All good and well, to a point. But the fact remains that other players have their own viewpoints to which they are committed. The identity of the administration in Washington, the content of the talking heads’ commentary, or the State Department’s politique du jour have little bearing on the fundamental outlook of foreign regimes and organizations. At some point we must step out of our superficial multilateralism and actually listen to what they are saying.
The message from the Iranian regime in the book is not pleasant, but it is in any case clear. One of the book’s antagonists brags, “Who’s afraid of the big bad American Wolf? Not us. We murder hundreds and hundreds of United States’ soldiers with pure impunity. We fill any country we wish with guns and rockets. Our Shahab 3 missile can reach anywhere in the Middle East, London, and the heart of Europe. Soon, even New York itself. We hold out our hand to be kissed by every aristocratic diplomat on earth. And they kiss it every time—We know what you’re made of. Dialogue.” Another character from the regime in Tehran flatly states, “We are going to win because you love life and we love death. The war is as simple as that.”
The Iranian regime, in short, has its own agenda. Their worldview is still, to some extent, that of a revolutionary state. Their nuclear program does not persist because of some misunderstanding that can yield to Barack Obama’s gospel of Hope and Change. It persists because the development of nuclear weapons has for some time been a key objective of both moderates and hard-liners in the regime, as Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute relates in the April 12 edition of The Wall Street Journal. Under the reputedly moderate Mohammad Khatami, Iran ran a nuclear weapons program and covertly launched the Natanz nuclear facility, which now boasts 7,000 enrichment centrifuges. A spokesman for former President Khatami revealed at a debate in Iran last year that it was actually Iranian policy to string the West along: “We had an overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building, and a covert policy, which was continuation of the [nuclear] activities.” Based on the words and actions of Tehran, then, one can conclude that the regime understands the West all too well. They are happy to cultivate the appearance of cooperation, as long as they can pursue their own aggressive and expansionist vision in the end.
Lowry and Korman are also emphatic on another point—that intelligence and security forces require a flexible operating framework. There are some situations in which traditional law enforcement protocols are not appropriate. At one point in the book, investigators conduct a sneak-and-peak search of a house, in accordance with the Patriot Act. From this search they glean key information that helps them to piece together the book’s central puzzle. More significantly, the book prominently features a scene in which the heroes resort to torturous means in order to extract vital, life-or-death information. The subject of torture is handled with the seriousness it deserves. On the one hand, the authors clearly suggest that occasions may arise in which the stakes are great and immediate enough to demand coercive action. On the other hand, the authors do not gloss over the actual interrogation scene. Torture appears to both the protagonists and the reader as revolting and cruel, as it should.
Why put all this weighty political material in a work of fiction? Part of the answer is simply to tell an engrossing story while making some important points. There is more to it, though. A novel is actually an excellent vehicle in which to air the authors’ concerns. It is all too easy to ignore asymmetric security threats or to discount the policies needed to address them. After all, such concerns are remote from peoples’ day-to-day affairs. It is only when these menaces emerge from the realm of the unknown in horrifying, visceral detail that the subject takes on critical importance in public discourse. A novel such as Banquo’s Ghosts consequently performs a valuable service. The detailed narrative of the story helps the reader to perceive—to feel the danger that exists in today’s post-9/11 world. Moreover, as the reader follows the protagonists through the tale, he absorbs their insights about how to address that danger.
This is the greater purpose of Banquo’s Ghosts—not merely to entertain, but to take on aspects of reality, so that reality does not in the future take on aspects of fiction.