Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Book Review: ‘The Counterfeit Agent’ by Alex Berenson

By Alan Cheuse
February 11, 2014

Eight times out, counting this new one, and with each time Alex Berenson’s idiosyncratic invention, John Wells, a US secret-ops agent and convert to Islam, finds himself getting older and fighting harder for higher stakes in a novel that earns your attention and delivers an intriguing catch at the end.
Wells, who began his work infiltrating insurgent groups in Pakistan, long ago made the whole world his territory. Although as “The Counterfeit Agent” opens he is trying to settle down with a New England woman with whom he’s found great comfort. Good luck!
Before too long the forces of what at first seems a clear international menace have set in motion a political scheme for ginning up a war with Iran, and Wells gets called out of his domestic life — which really, truth be told, has begun to erode.
His girlfriend seems to understand this more than he does. At the end of a Caribbean cruise that he has agreed to in order to show his faith in their future, she gives him an ultimatum: 30 days to decide whether or not he wants to retire and make a new life with her or remain at the beck and call of his agency masters.
Just as they disembark in Miami, his telephone goes off and he takes on a new mission. As the pages go by the clock ticks for him double-time, with the peace, security, and happiness of both his private life and that of the greater world in the balance.
His mission? To ferret out the troublesome, and apparently rogue, operation that’s pushing the United States and Iran closer to Armageddon.
We watch as a shadowy female agent on the prowl for a large amount of fissionable material in South Africa works behind the scenes to set up attacks on several CIA station chiefs around the globe. We meet the rogue US agent who works for her, a man not only for hire but one with a motive for revenge, and we meet the gunmen he hires.
All this takes a while for Berenson to set up, but his clean, clear prose and solid grasp of global geopolitics make for compelling, believable scenes and chapters. By the time Wells gets into the thick of the case, one CIA agent lies dead in Southeast Asia, and the plot to heat up the Middle East, thanks to these events and some possibly questionable intel about that fissionable material, has become full-blown.
There’s a deep-throated Iranian military officer nicknamed “Reza” stationed in Turkey whose information has lent the plot desperate urgency, and Wells has the task of finding out whether or not he is authentic, and nearly dies in the process.
As we witness the mounting violence and intrigue as the plotters advance, Berenson ratchets up the tension by giving us a Washington mired in confusion and counterproductive thinking, poised to be duped by rogue actors.
Unfortunately some of this news comes in the form of an “info-dump,” nearly two pages long, typical of novels worse than Berenson will ever write — “The United States spent sixty billion dollars a year to spy on friends and enemies, tap phones, intercept emails, peek through windows . . . ’’ etc. Fortunately this comes toward the end of the otherwise neatly told story.
Certainly the rush of events in the final pages doesn’t make things any easier for Wells. It becomes quite clear that an agent whose girlfriend has essentially sent him packing, who barely escapes death in an abandoned factory in Istanbul, and who lives in a world with no shortage of global threat has a lot of work ahead of him — including apparently a sequel to this novel.
Alan Cheuse, the book commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” can be reached at

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