One of the enduring pleasures of genre fiction is the occasional appearance of a novel that does more than it says on the tin: a murder mystery that offers genuine social insight, for example, or a thriller that informs as well as entertains. This happens less often than you’d think. More usual is the genre novel offered by a literary heavyweight self-consciously paddling in shallow waters, doing the genre a favor by splashing about in it. They might imagine their heft is adding sparkle to the waves, but all too often there is, as Gertrude Stein said, “no there there.” Just a few borrowed accessories, and a misguided sense of entitlement.
It’s a relief, then, that Lauren Wilkinson’s “American Spy,” while embracing ambitions and concerns that don’t always figure highly in the spy genre, is first and foremost a thriller. Its trigger sends us straight into plot: Marie Mitchell, a young black woman, is confronted in her home one night by an intruder. Dispatching him without undue difficulty, she flees the United States with her 4-year-old twin sons, and then — hiding out at her mother’s home in Martinique — sets about unraveling the complicated back story that produced her present (which, in the novel’s reality, is 1992).
The key to her current situation turns out to be her role, in the 1980s, as an F.B.I. intelligence agent. “Recruiting and running informants was about cultivating their trust,” Marie tells us. “To do that I found it worked best to lie frequently to them.” But like any agent in the field, she’s more lied to than lying: Recruited to an overseas operation, she finds herself the bait in a honey trap intended to remove the charismatic, popular leader of the newborn Burkina Faso, and soon realizes that the United States is interfering in another country’s democratic processes for its own advantage.
Plenty to enjoy on its own terms, then, as a slick, well-observed thriller, but what adds depth are the perspectives offered by the central character. As a black woman, Marie is undervalued twice over in the boys’ club atmosphere of the F.B.I. of the 1980s. Spying is in her blood — her grandmother, fair-skinned enough to pass for white, “moved in and out of the New York places where Negroes were interdits, gathering her intelligence on the world that white people inhabited” — but her career choice remains morally problematic: Her mentor in the F.B.I. had been “one of a small handful of black special agents hired under J. Edgar Hoover’s tenure … used almost exclusively to undermine civil rights activists.” Her gender, too, puts barriers in her way. On being told, “We give female officers a hard time … We hold women to an unfair double standard,” she says, “Hearing him explain it in theoretical terms when I’d lived it caused me a specific type of maddening anger.”
More controversial, perhaps, is Marie’s relationship with the revolutionary leader she is helping undermine. The novel is “inspired by true events,” and the man in question — with whom she falls in love, and who fathers her children — is Thomas Sankara, often referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara.” It’s not unusual for a real-life figure like this to appear in fiction, but it might be pushing at the bounds of propriety to press-gang him into parenthood. Then again, challenging boundaries is what brave fiction does, and Wilkinson proves confident enough to carry it off. For a debut novel it’s remarkably assured, earning its genre stripes with panache, and addressing thought-provoking issues along the way.
- Beyond 'Black Panther': A brief history of Afrofuturism
- Black Patients Are 40% Less Likely Than White Patients to Get Pain Meds From EMTs
- 10 books by black authors that are shaping our conversation about race
- Best Android games of 2017 for your new phone, tablet, or Chromebook
- 'Black Panther' builds a world you'll want to return to again and again
- New York Times to air chilling Golden Globes ad that touts its sexual misconduct reporting
- 'Black Panther' is loaded with Easter eggs you probably missed. Here they are.
- Female Candidates Challenge Electability Question in Debates
- To understand "Black Panther," you need to understand Afrofuturism
- Uber sued by rider alleging rape, driver said to have violent past
- The Best New Running Sunglasses
- Janelle Monae Comes Out As Queer In 'Rolling Stone' Profile
- New trailers: Birds of Prey, 1917, The King’s Man, and more
- Everything New Coming To Netflix In October 2018
- Marvel is finally, maybe, eventually making that Black Widow movie you asked for
- In Black Mirror’s USS Callister, the true villains are real-world tech moguls
- James Bond: The Ultimate Spy Gear and Gadget Guide
- Student haunted by mystery ‘stalker’ who creepily copies all of her social media posts
- Trevante Rhodes Is a Ripped Black Star Who Wants You to Rethink What That Means
- Everything new in Destiny 2: Shadowkeep
In a Gutsy New Thriller, a Black Female Spy’s Past Comes Back to Haunt Her have 823 words, post on www.nytimes.com at February 20, 2019. This is cached page on Europe Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.