The Last Man in Tehran by Mark Henshaw

Over the past several years author Mark Henshaw has quietly been putting out some of the best modern CIA based espionage novels. Henshaw (currently or formerly, it’s kind of hazy) worked for the CIA as an analyst. While other former Agency employees such as Jason Matthews have gotten the buzz, Henshaw‘s spy thrillers rival the best of Tom Clancy, with the bonus that he knows the benefit of brevity.

He’s got a great hook too. After 9/11, the director of CIA created a department called the “Red Cell.” It’s remit – to explore those ideas and theories that would typically be shot down early if it went through the normal chain of bureaucracy. Henshaw was a member of that department for a time and fictionalized it in his first novel, Red Cell. Over the course of his first three novels the two leads – Jonathan Burke, the grizzled genius, and Kyra Stryker, the newcomer, have dealt with secret Chinese weapons, Iranian nuclear weapons in Venezuela, and Russian spies.

In The Last Man in Tehran Henshaw begins with a flashback to the takeover of the US embassy in 1979 in Iran before jumping to the modern day and an all too possible scenario – the explosion of a dirty bomb in Israel. The Red Cell takes on determining the true responsible party in hopes of de-escalating an increasingly volatile situation between the likely suspect, Iran, and an Israel out for revenge. At the same time, they need to figure out who inside the CIA is leaking classified material to Mossad.

Readers hopscotch across the globe from Virginia to London to Iran as we are introduced to characters from every possible intelligence organization. There are many twists and turns but Henshaw is nuanced and balanced in his description of the various players. There are no clear cut good and bad guys and Henshaw excels at setting out the motivations of his characters and letting the reader decide what to think of them. Although he shows a certain amount of incompetence by management in the CIA, this is no screed of outrage against the entire organization. You can tell Henshaw took pride in his time at the CIA even while acknowledging their occasional major missteps.

Finally, you get the feeling that this particular book was more personal to the author than some of his earlier novels. By the time you get to the acknowledgments you can make a guess why that may be.

The Last Man from Tehran may be Henshaw’s best yet and I am looking forward to his next book. He has taken the building blocks of the modern spy novel Clancy created in the 80’s and updated them for the current era adding a healthy dose of insider knowledge.

Further Reading/Listening:

  • Henshaw’s publisher page
  • Henshaw’s webpage
  • International Spy Museum SpyCast Interview
  • Henshaw gives his five essential thrillers
  • An interview with Henshaw upon the release of The Fall of Moscow Station
  • An interview with Henshaw upon the release of his current book, The Last Man in Tehran
  • Red Cell link
  • Cold Shotlink
  • The Fall of Moscow Station link

From the back cover:

Decorated CIA analyst Mark Henshaw continues the “authentic, compelling, and revealing” (Jason Matthews) Red Cell series following agent Kyra Stryker who must work with retired analyst Jonathan Burke to save the CIA from being torn apart by a conspiracy of moles.

New Red Cell Chief Kyra Stryker has barely settled into the job when an attack on an Israeli port throws the Middle East into chaos. The Mossad—Israel’s feared intelligence service—responds with a campaign of covert sabotage and assassination, determined to protect the homeland. But evidence quickly turns up suggesting that a group of moles inside Langley are helping Mossad wage its covert war.

Convinced that Mossad has heavily penetrated the CIA’s leadership, the FBI launches a counterintelligence investigation that threatens to cripple the Agency—and anyone who questions the official story is suspect. With few officials willing to help for fear of getting accused, Kyra turns to her former mentors—now-retired Red Cell Chief Jonathan Burke and his wife, former CIA Director Kathryn Cooke—to help uncover who is trying to tear the CIA apart from the inside out.

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