Marie Mitchell, one of the few female African American FBI agents living in New York, is the voice of Lauren Wilkinson’s debut novel American Spy. Mitchell is drawn into a CIA operation to infiltrate the life of Thomas Sankara. Sankara was the real life president of Burkina Faso who made radical and speedy changes to improve the lives of the people of his country. Vaccinations, literacy initiatives and other positive changes he made during his short time in power were at odds with his later move to strengthen control via authoritarianism. His closest supporter later became the cause of his downfall and assassination under mysterious circumstances. The book is set in 1992 and written as a letter from Marie to her young sons with a very calculated rambling structure that jumps around in time. This allows Wilkinson to leave out important information until it can have the best impact.
First person novels are tricky. A writer really has to make you enjoy spending some time inside the head of the person they are writing. That’s not to say the person has to be “good” or “likable” but the character needs to have interesting thoughts and the ability to tell a story in a believable conversational way. With her FBI agent turned CIA spy, Wilkinson has delivered.
When I think about spy novels, I start to think about where a new novel fits within the canon. American Spy is le Carré-esque in its treatment of characters and politics but for me it’s closest cousin is The Tears of Autumn by Charles McCarry. Tears, like American Spy, was a spy novel that did a deep dive into the real story of the assassination of a president and posited a theory on who was behind it; one that, if quickly stated, would have you hanging out with kookiest of conspiracy theorists. However, when slowly laid out in novel form, piece by piece, and through excellent writing you become convinced. Adding to the believability of Wilkinson’s novel is the fact that the CIA has a long history of not only spying on other countries but actively working to undermine their governments to put in leaders more appealing to the US. The book Overthrow by Stephen Kinzler does a good job of taking us through the various times this occurred in US history. Over the past two years, seeing that a spy agency can influence who is in power in the US gives the history in Burkina Faso even greater relevance.
Marie is a fascinating character. Conflicted, funny, brave, and strong willed, we learn about her childhood and her path to law enforcement before becoming a spy. In truth it’s a novel about family in spy clothing. About how difficult it can be to understand the choices made by the ones we love and that sometimes the motivations of even those we are closest to may remain opaque. I appreciated that Wilkinson doesn’t give you clear cut answers on what every character’s motivations are. Instead, she gives you enough clues and you’re left to come to your own conclusions. She also gives an excellent sense of the timeframe of the 70’s and 80’s while teaching me something new about a place I knew very little about.
The few flaws – a reference to a book that didn’t exist yet or terms that, even if they were around in the time period, jar you out of the story – are minor and don’t take away from the overall impact of the novel. Some may take issue with an ending that leaves certain things unresolved, but I found it satisfying and in keeping with the way the story was being told. Although, I have to admit, Wilkinson had me fully hooked after the first two chapters and she would have had to go seriously off the rails to lose my interest.
There have been very few spy stories written by African American authors with the most memorable one, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, being published 50 years ago this year. The history of that book and movie show that, beyond having writers take on the subject, there were institutional mechanisms in place to actively discourage the publication of these types of titles by African Americans. It’s taken too long, but I am encouraged to see authors of backgrounds other than the typical white guys take on these stories and offer a different perspective.
Race, gender, foreign policy, family – it’s a lot for any one book to take on and still feel cohesive, but by keeping the focus on the characters, Wilkinson has pulled it off and jumped to an early lead for the best spy novel of 2019.
About the book –
What if your sense of duty required you to betray the man you love?
It’s 1986, the heart of the Cold War, and Marie Mitchell is an intelligence officer with the FBI. She’s brilliant, but she’s also a young black woman working in an old boys’ club. Her career has stalled out, she’s overlooked for every high-profile squad, and her days are filled with monotonous paperwork. So when she’s given the opportunity to join a shadowy task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the charismatic revolutionary president of Burkina Faso whose Communist ideology has made him a target for American intervention, she says yes. Yes, even though she secretly admires the work Sankara is doing for his country. Yes, even though she is still grieving the mysterious death of her sister, whose example led Marie to this career path in the first place. Yes, even though a furious part of her suspects she’s being offered the job because of her appearance and not her talent.
In the year that follows, Marie will observe Sankara, seduce him, and ultimately have a hand in the coup that will bring him down. But doing so will change everything she believes about what it means to be a spy, a lover, a sister, and a good American.
Inspired by true events—Thomas Sankara is known as “Africa’s Che Guevara”—American Spy knits together a gripping spy thriller, a heartbreaking family drama, and a passionate romance. This is a face of the Cold War you’ve never seen before, and it introduces a powerful new literary voice.