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In February 2004, former New York Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath created a minor controversy with an essay in which he wondered why most contemporary thriller writers "don't seem to be interested in the post-9/11 landscape." The mystery world is excellent at defending its turf, so it's hardly surprising that several months later, spy novelist Gayle Lynds would write a rebuttal piece. Citing upwardly trending statistics and her own career as a model, Lynds challenged McGrath and readers to "look realistically at espionage thrillers again. They're not only alive, readers are excited about them."
Three years on, both Lynds and McGrath appear to have been correct — a seeming paradox that really isn't. While a bona fide comeback for spy thrillers is still more rumor than fact, 2007 alone has produced or will see new books from veterans such as Daniel Silva, Joseph Finder, Alex Carr and Olen Steinhauer — not to mention the continuation of Robert Ludlum's Bourne series by Eric Van Lustbader. Others are also making their mark: Washington Post writer David Ignatius' "Body of Lies" (Norton: 320 pp., $24.95) has racked up accolades for its depiction of a post-Sept. 11 world, while New York Times business reporter Alex Berenson took home the Edgar Award for Best First Novel this year for his Al Qaeda-centric thriller, "The Faithful Spy" (Random House: 352 pp., $24.95).
At the same time, a look at both bestseller lists and upcoming releases presents a picture in line with McGrath's disappointed point of view. Readers clamor for the McDonald's-like approach of a James Patterson and his easy-to-digest products; Lee Child's novels owe more to archetypal myths than to contemporary politics. For their parts, Steinhauer, Boris Starling and Alan Furst have concentrated on the recent past, and Silva's contemporary portrayal of Middle Eastern politics can be too slick for its own good.
Of course, none of these writers is obligated to chronicle the murky waters created by the "war on terror," but their passive consensus has troubled R.J. Hillhouse, a former professor of international relations and author of the post-Cold War spy novel "Rift Zone," who last month flipped her position on the McGrath-Lynds dialectic. (The latter's essay was originally published on Hillhouse's website.) "Thriller writers have become apologists for the excesses of our age," Hillhouse wrote, including herself in the charge. Instead of finishing the thriller she'd been slated to work on, she changed direction and followed her muse down more labyrinthine — and creatively risky — paths.
The vision Hillhouse presents of America's ongoing terrorist battle in "Outsourced" (Forge: 400 pp., $25.95) is painted with the expected hazy shade of gray. Former lovers turn to enemies and back again with alarming speed; longtime confidants sell each other out at the promise of extra cash or under threat of blackmail. Gruesome death is accompanied by varying levels of guilt and remorse. Where "Outsourced" differs from previous generations of spy thrillers is in the nature of the players: Instead of the CIA battling the KGB or a lone wolf taking on the establishment, private companies are now running the show, focusing more on prized government contracts than the hunt for terrorists. "When Julius Caesar marched his army across the Rubicon River, he knew he was starting civil war in Rome," remarks one operative to his boss. "I'd say we're looking at the same thing — civil war."
At the center, sometimes together but often apart, are two veterans of the private army world: Camille Black (née Stella Hawkins), chief executive of Black Management, and Hunter Stone, a multiple-aliased operative working with a secretive intelligence section of the Department of Defense. (He also happens to be Black's former fiancé.) Their relationship is an obvious metaphor for the high-stakes double-dealing of their professional lives, but Hillhouse plays with expectations just enough to avoid cliché. Yes, Black is hired by the CIA to kill Stone, but the two don't join forces to hunt a common enemy after bouts of steamy sex. Instead, the single love scene here propels the plot in an unexpected direction, and the enemies they fight are diffuse and elastic.
Hillhouse creates vivid images of stark violence and high emotions that amplify her strongest gift: the ability to depict an utter lack of morality both in and out of Baghdad's Green Zone. We understand why mercy and humanity are unwelcome feelings for Stone, just as we feel his sense of outrage that "none of his training had prepared him for torture at the hands of another American." For a novel with a weighty subject, "Outsourced" also benefits from Hillhouse's dark humor about turf wars and other political maneuvers. "[I]n the War on Terror, the Pentagon's the eight-hundred-pound gorilla and at best you guys at Langley are Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp," remarks one of Black's employees to a high-ranking CIA executive, summing up the power struggle between two government agencies in a single sentence.
"Outsourced" is not a perfect political thriller — fascinating as they are, there are perhaps too many expository paragraphs that slow the plot down. But perhaps it is the political thriller we deserve. By traveling the more complicated route, Hillhouse manages a neat trick: to balance nonfiction-style education with a gripping story that opens with great betrayal and only worsens after that. Here, perhaps, we have definitive proof that McGrath was wrong: Espionage writers are ready to write fiction that tells the darkest possible truths.