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'Night Heron' And 'The Director' Provide A Double Shot Of Intrigue

I suppose it's preaching to the converted to announce that David Ignatius has done it again. But here he is, having written yet another deeply engaging spy thriller, rooted at that point where the intricacies of the intelligence community and the everyday world of civilians converge. However, it's a reviewer's duty to point out some fascinating new turns in the man's work — in particular, the highlighting of Internet communications as a source of secret information over the conventional collection of data in the field, and the actual manipulation of events by means of writing code.

The Director of the title is Graham Weber, the newly appointed head of the Central Intelligence Agency. Weber is a successful businessman, with a specialty in communications systems and a mission to reform what appears from the outside — and almost immediately from the inside — to be a highly dysfunctional intelligence agency. On top of the usual covey of people resistant to change comes the news that a mole may be poking his nose into the ones and zeros of the agency's deeply protected communications systems. It's clear to Weber that the agency has to change or die.

To help find the mole, he turns to the agency's hip, postmodernish poster boy for Web work, Internet Operations Center head James Morris, aka "Pownzor." This turns out to be a big mistake, and Ignatius lets readers know that early enough to participate in the enormous ironies of the new Director's dependence on this squirrely genius who has "burned through his loyalty oath" right quick. Morris, a mix of Thomas Pynchon and Edward Snowden, adds enormously to the suspense — as well as the irony — as he leads an inside team in a major cyberattack on the Swiss-based Bank of International Settlements. The BIS is a real-life institution which — in this book at least — served for decades as a monetary pivot point for both the Nazis and the British.

Ignatius moves his plot around with a talent as nimble as Morris juggling BIS funds — which he appropriates as a sort of payback for life under imperialism, sending the money unbidden to third-world banks around the globe.

On top of Morris' weird Robin Hood mentality, we get to follow an actual romance line, too, in the at-first business-cool relationship between the divorced director and a woman who works in his section. The CIA agent's name is Ariel Weiss, and as befits a spy novel heroine, she possesses the doubly laudable qualities of being extremely gifted at her job and extremely attractive. Toward the end, even as powerful actors within the agency show their true colors — which turn out to be not at all the same shade as the earnest and honest new Director — Weber turns to Weiss for assistance, and then some.

Ignatius is coming up on 10 novels. Night Heron comes to us from first-time novelist Adam Brookes, who reported for the BBC from China and now works for BBC News in Washington. It's got all of the freshness of firsthand sense of place — Brookes helps us to feel and smell and taste, and even think through what seems to outsiders as the nearly pure confusion of modern China, from labor camps to the sophisticated realm of defense industry scientists. And it's got a convincing narrative drive that comes from a veteran newsman's long career in creating stories that make sense and matter.

It opens in a desert labor camp far from any of China's great cities, as a one-time spy for the British, a big lumbering man named "Peanut" (he got his ironic nickname in jail) escapes from his captivity and heads back to urban life in Beijing. He settles into a job as a bouncer at a workingman's brothel — but not before trying to make contact with his old British handlers and his former sources in the Chinese defense industry. As he resurfaces, the story broadens, embracing the activities of intelligence agencies in London and intersecting the life of British journalist Philip Mangan, who's on duty in Beijing. But the novel really catches fire about midway through, when Mangan reluctantly takes up the task of serving as Peanut's intermediary for passing along secret materials to British intelligence — and sheds "his illusion that he was working in the name of journalism, of a story, of a little collaboration."

I had a bit of a hard time with the excessive physical violence at the very end of the book. It's not that I don't believe that Mangan — now on the run — wouldn't kill someone. It's just that I didn't believe Brookes' portrayal of it. Maybe Brookes was in as much of a panic about ending this otherwise completely convincing novel as Mangan was to escape from a hostile China. Read the book all the way to the finish and see for yourself.

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Alan Cheuse
Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.