It has been a while since my last newsletter…the past few months have been a whirlwind, to say the least, and my intention was that my next post would be about the launch of THE BITTER PAST and everything great that has happened with it. I promise to do just that very soon, but I wanted to share my thoughts about someone else’s work—it’s about time, right?—because I must pay homage where homage is due.

I was at a writer’s conference last week in San Diego. Yes, we have those. Don’t laugh. Several times a year, authors of all stripes come together in big cities and small hotel bars to stroke each other’s egos, autograph our latest books while commiserating over one-star reviews, and learn about the craft of writing. For me, it’s mostly about finding authors to emulate, people who provide me the inspiration to become a better storyteller. There are so many, these gifted and talented writers, that I frequently feel like it’s my Make-A-Wish moment.

As expected, I found lots of fellow scribes to fit the bill. I always do. And I have plenty of new books to read and new authors to read up on. The first book I read this week is by I.S. Berry, and it’s a doozy. It’s called THE PEACOCK AND THE SPARROW, and if you like a good old-fashioned spy story, then this book is for you. When I say old-fashioned, I mean real. I mean borne from real experience, a la Graham Greene or John le Carré, both former spies and giants in spy fiction. There are no superheroes in their tales of espionage and dark alleys, just real humans with every frailty known to God and man, desperately, yet methodically trying to do the right thing.

I.S. Berry looks like a real spy. She looks like the mother of a young son (which she is) who might volunteer for the PTA, and she paints a picture of the shadows similar to what those aforementioned masters might, though a much more current one. Her centerpiece is Bahrain during the Arab Spring that began in 2011, and she crafts a brilliant “what-if” story of America’s all-too-common attempts to be all things to all people. Fuck-ups ensue. Humanity gets in the way. Go figure. But it’s Berry’s insights into this world, from her six years as an Operations Officer in the CIA and postings in Europe and the Middle East, that will make her readers truly appreciate what she brings to the spy thriller genre:

“Espionage, I’ve concluded, is unique in this regard, the only profession where two people, usually strangers, are wholly and synchronically linked, as closely bound as lovers, where individual destiny dictates joint destiny.”  

You can’t make that up. Even fiction writers have their limitations. This is a world experienced first-hand, one necessary to describe a relationship between a handler and his (or her) source so authentically. There’s nothing glamorous about Shane Collins, Berry’s protagonist. But he’s been an intelligence officer for twenty-five years. He gets it. He gets it like a boxer who’s taken too many blows to the face over a career that’s come up short. He gets it like the disappointment of a false spring, when the weather turns dark and cold again. Hope is no longer in the picture, just the harsh reality of what a lifetime playing both sides against the middle has made you:

Spies are trained to needle, cajole, and persuade, and slowly, before you realize what’s happening, it’s seeped into every crevice of your life like spilled poison.”

These jaded introspections won’t make you leap out of your seat. They’re not designed to do that. They’re written to draw you into the lives of the secret world and to make you appreciate what intelligence officers do in real time—which is always much slower than how James Bond would do it. I love this one:

“My contact approached with no apparent pretense of sightseeing (though somehow he seemed to fit seamlessly into the landscape), walking with a slightly uneven gait that suggested a later-life, maybe war, injury. Or perhaps it was simply cover, the result of filling his right shoe with stones.”

In THE BITTER PAST, I have a flashback in which my main character puts gravel in his shoe as part of a disguise 😊. I had to read up on this. Berry, I’m guessing, was trained in it. Her descriptions of a life of secrets and lies is like ground penetrating radar, giving the reader the true images of a universe built on the most unstable of seismic faults. You’re pulling for Shane Collins—not immediately but slowly and over time—so much that you actually feel his fear at a pivotal moment when he’s trying to get something vital (to someone’s cause) through airport security:

“Palms up, sweat visible in the creases. My hands looked old. Older than fifty-two years. Too old to be shaking this violently, proffering explanations, convincing inquisitors. Hands on the cusp of guilt. Too late to wipe clean.”

Hands on the cusp of guilt. It doesn’t get any better than that, folks. THE PEACOCK AND THE SPARROW is as fine a piece of art as the brilliant mosaics featured in its pages. Pick it up. Savor the pages like I did. Sip them, and go back time and again to some of the best spy prose you will ever read.

 

P.S. I got to meet Ilana Berry in San Diego last week. I shook her hand. It was small and fit easily into mine. Walking away, I had the feeling she probably knew how to use that hand to collapse my windpipe or remove an eye, if she were so inclined. 😊