Valerie Plame, as all true political junkies will recall, rocketed from anonymity to celebrity a decade ago thanks toa truly bizarre episode that the George W. Bush administration inflicted upon itself. Briefly, during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, the CIA sent Plame’s husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, to Niger to check reports that Saddam Hussein had sought to buy materials there that his nation could use to build weapons of mass destruction.
Wilson reported back that it didn’t happen, which wasn’t what the Bushies wanted to hear. Soon thereafter, apparently to punish Wilson for his truth-telling, sources in the administration leaked to columnist Robert Novak that Wilson’s wife, Plame, was a covert operative at the CIA. That was true, but to disclose it to the news media was a crime. In time, Vice President Richard B. Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was put on trial for misleading FBI agents investigating the leak.
Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice — although not of the actual leak — after which President Bush commuted his 30-month prison sentence. Plame, her cover blown, resigned from the CIA. The widespread suspicion that Libby might have taken a fall for his boss, the vice president — Darth Vader himself — boosted Plame’s status as a liberal heroine. She signed a reported seven-figure book deal, and her 2007 memoir, “Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House” became a movie, with Naomi Watts playing Plame.
Now the Plame juggernaut rolls on, with the publication of her first novel — about a covert CIA operative named Vanessa Pierson — and if it’s your instinct to fear the worst, think again. “Blowback” is a fine, fast-moving spy saga. Plame wisely hired a co-author, Sarah Lovett, who has written five suspense novels. The two make an effective team: one partner who knows all about the CIA and one who knows how to write first-rate popular fiction.
Vanessa Pierson is “young, blond, lithe and nicely sexy.” Plame, who turned 50 recently, calls her “a younger, smarter version of me.” Pierson is no prude. She likes to relax with a Dunhill cigarette and a shot of good bourbon, and she’s having an affair with a fellow agent that’s forbidden by CIA rules, but she also has values, instilled by her war-hero father. The strong have a responsibility, she believes, “to care for those who can’t defend themselves” and to oppose “those who dealt in death in exchange for money, power, and ideology.”
Pierson has an office in Cyprus, where she poses as a financial adviser, but her real mission is tracking an international arms dealer called Bhoot, who is believed to be helping Iran go nuclear. Bhoot employs a skilled assassin — a Chechen — who in an opening scene in Vienna shoots one of Pierson’s informers before her eyes. Later he’ll try to kill a Russian banker who wants to help Pierson locate the elusive arms dealer, and, in London, he targets a senior British official who’s working with Pierson and the CIA.
Plame and Lovett tell their story in short, fast-paced action scenes that steadily build momentum. They sensibly omit all the time that spies spend drinking coffee and waiting for something to happen. Pierson emerges as a smart, sexy action hero, a kind of James Bond with high heels, short skirts and a Glock in her purse.
The authors sometimes provide details that might elude a male writer. A haughty CIA official gives off “the very expensive scent of Clive Christian 1872, his signature,” whereas Vanessa’s lover can only manage Dior’s Eau Sauvage for his after-shave. A child in danger “clutched at her mother with the fierceness of a baby bird clutching to its nest.” Pierson and her lover “kissed again, this time neither of them breathing until they had to.” In a tense meeting with British intelligence officials, Vanessa knows that “the line between sharing too much and not enough was razor thin.”
“Blowback” is billed as the beginning of a series. The authors, while giving their heroine several victories here, have left plenty of unfinished business. Might Vanessa’s handsome lover be a traitor? Will Iran go nuclear? Will the Pentagon forever outfox the CIA? Check out this seductive spy; she’s likely to be around for a while.