There is a hazard to reading a lot of what might be categorized as “literary thrillers.” Oftentimes they’re so incident-rich that one’s eagerness to settle down with a quieter novel—one with little more propulsion than the cataloging of the pains of domesticity or the taking of minutes during the wordlessly complicated negotiations of long-term intimacy—sometimes feels diminished. Two books lie balanced on the arm of one’s sofa: the first will take a reader, via an international arms cartel funded by Macedonian separatists, to the coast of Libya, to the suburbs of Moscow, and on to the crowds of King David Street; the second will take a reader to the kitchen sinks and bedrooms of grieving souls who, chances are strong, are not terribly unlike ourselves. But one’s own kitchen sink awaits, and in the bedroom reclines a partner who might well ask if we have taken out the trash, changed the diaper, walked the dog. Why does this feel so familiar? Because, if one has selected the quieter book, one has been staring into a mirror of prose.
This is not to say literary fiction must confront The World. Its first duty is to its characters—their wants and inner lives—but if those characters inhabit a world of war and terror then surely it is the fiction writer’s obligation to make that world real. Just as surely this can go too far. A domestic novel as rich with worldly reverberation as Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, published in 1970, has as its only overtly political touch a glimpsed poster of (an unnamed) George Wallace. And, it should be said, within a violent, frightening world there can be places of profound quiet and stillness untouched by what surrounds them. Let us see those places, too. We may need them even more.
Thus, in turbulent times, the writer of a certain kind of literary thriller is blessed with newfound assumptions of relevance. The fact is, though, many literary readers are still not inclined to think highly of literary thrillers. Such books can indeed come off as greed-driven works of impure artistic intention. We have now wandered into the gnarled woodlands of genre. So what is a “literary thriller”? There are various types: the urban literary thriller, such as Susanna Moore’s In the Cut; the gothic literary thriller, such as Denis Johnson’s Already Dead; the political literary thriller, most typically spy novels. This last sort of literary thriller—currently practiced at a more tuneful key by Alan Furst and at its dullest and flattest by multitudes—is the subspecies with which we will here concern ourselves. The typical political literary thriller has an uncomplicated recipe. It is mostly a matter of milieu. Chances are there will be gunplay, chases, spies, embassies, deeply conflicted characters, and prose often described by critics as “world-weary.” But I would argue that most of these literary thrillers’ prose is not world-weary at all but rather certitude-weary. If familiarity breeds contempt, then perhaps the unfamiliar breeds a simple recognition of hitherto unimagined complications. (See Iraq, U.S. Forces in.)
From where, then, does the “literary” in literary thriller emerge? That is a much simpler question. The normal thriller seeks to endanger the world and rescue it—and in the doing come out with a blockbuster. The literary thriller often moves a gallery of ambivalent characters through an already ruined world in order to learn where their final loyalties rest. They are, in short, morally complicated in ways that disallow quick summarization on written-to-fit mass-market-paperback copy. The chasm of literary motive separating the two is what makes the New York Times’ recent decision to review more “commercial novels,” presumably for the benefit of those whose books are purchased in bulk at LaGuardia, so risible and intellectually obscene. The typical thriller (“He twisted it powerfully, and the gangster’s neck broke with a loud, clear snap”) operates on two, possibly four, watts of brainpower. The reviews of Janet Maslin, who has been given by the Times the sad duty of reading this slop, have tended, so far, to advance one of two arguments: this is more cliché-ridden and idiotic than most commercial novels, or this is less cliché-ridden and idiotic than most commercial novels. Reviewing such work is as gray and repetitive and hopeless a task as comparing raindrops.
Like most literary novels, most literary thrillers take the art of character as their first obligation. Unlike most novels, however, their success is crushingly dependent upon plot. This plot-reliance is what genetically ties them to their less evolved brethren, and is perhaps reason numero uno they are often delegitimized as art in the minds of certain readers. Obviously, plot is important to all works of fiction (even those which claim to have no use for it), but the writer of the literary thriller simply needs more plot than most writers. Plot, Norman Mailer once wrote, “is equal to a drug. It can stimulate a novelist into hordes of narrative energy, and it certainly will keep a reader on the page, but, sooner or later, plot presents its bill, and dire exigencies come down upon the writer.” If plot is a drug, most literary writers have a pot-tokingly casual relationship with the stuff. Most literary-thriller writers, on the other hand, are the equivalent of crystal-meth freaks. For such writers plot addiction often means that, in Mailer’s words, “one’s best characters” are “ratcheted away from believability.” Mailer is almost certainly correct about the collateral damage wreaked by plot dependence, but “dire exigencies” come down equally hard on those uninterested in plot—but rarely will they be excommunicated from the church of literature because of it.
Who are the founding artistes of the modern political literary thriller? Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) is probably the most seminal and scarily predictive ur-thriller. Its morally compromised main character, Verloc—who is, among other things, a porno fiend—descends undercover into the terrorist underground of turn-of-the-century Europe (the forces of which, in actual fact, wound up doing unprecedented amounts of damage and took the lives of statesmen from our own President McKinley in 1901 to Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand in 1914). Verloc learns, among other things, that the assassins and maniacs of this blood-spattered underworld are scarcely any more or less principled than those of the orderly world above them: there are many ways to kill a man. Such insight is the troubling main course of most literary thrillers, as Conrad’s great apostles, Graham Greene and John le Carré, understand. Indeed, if Conrad provided the genre with its arena, then Greene and le Carré are the hurdles one needs to jump in order to compete there. This writer has read most of Greene’s “entertainments” (as he famously undersold his more thoroughgoingly entertaining and less Catholic novels) and, like many, I regard The Quiet American (1955) as the one novel where Greene’s two declared modes of writing intersect at something close to perfection. The Quiet American is of course Greene’s novel of French-controlled Vietnam, and was published one year after the French were routed by the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu, which led to the United States’ muddled entry into the conflict. Greene’s quiet American, Pyle (often said to be modeled on an actual American advisor in Vietnam named Colonel Edward Lansdale), is a man of whom Fowler, Greene’s narrator, famously says, “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” Pyle’s sincerity of purpose amorally informs his ruthless determination to implement it, and he has since become one way to understand what went wrong in Vietnam for the United States. As in The Secret Agent, The Quiet American saw art transmogrify into prophecy, and it remains the kind of literary thriller to which those of serious artistic intent aspire.
Le Carré is in many ways a more complicated case. Less prophetic than diagnostic, le Carré’s early novels (my favorite remaining his first Smiley novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) attempt to illustrate the many ways in which the tactics of the intelligence services of the West (usually embodied by the gentle British agent George Smiley) paralleled those of the Soviet Union (embodied by the not-quite-evil Karla). In le Carré one finds none of the ambiguity-smashing victories of most commercial thrillers: the rescued damsel, the intercepted nuke, the saved president. Rather, le Carré’s novels are grimly written and often very sad; the more one reads of them, the more grimly written and sad they seem, the more one feels that le Carré cannot escape the gray dimension from which his vision is transmitted. The warming and then formal end of the Cold War promised to give le Carré some spiritual legroom (see his novels The Russia House and The Tailor of Panama for heartening suggestions of this) but soon, and nowhere more so than in his new novel, Absolute Friends, he was assailing the strange new world with familiar (but now unforgiving) Cold War metrics. Absolute Friends, which at every opportunity attacks the war in Iraq as a nasty exercise in colonialism, ends with two of le Carré’s heroes—a Brit named Mundy and a German named Sasha, whom le Carré has spent several hundred pages rather beautifully creating—summarily gunned down by American assassins. One would think that a writer with the spiritual openness to entertain the possibility of human decency within the ranks of the KGB might have at least found something debatable about the war in Iraq, but alas. In le Carré we begin to see how a desire to portray moral ambiguity can ultimately become a stance as Manichean as Tom Clancy’s anabolic triumphalism. Has le Carré become trapped by the conventions of the genre he helped invent and, through his excellence, subvert? Whatever the case, it is frustrating if only because le Carré is such a fine writer.
Many critics have allowed le Carré that and more. But a few have allowed him his ability as a writer only to throw ice-cold doubt upon the whole concept of the literary thriller as a legitimate work of art. In a 1995 review of Our Game, John Updike notes that “le Carré writes well, even fancily,” but holds that there is “something of a boyish daydream” about the novel. “To be thrilling,” Updike says, “a political thriller has to mess with history, and history is messy enough, thanks.” James Wood recently made a much more frontal assault on le Carré in the pages of the New Republic. Even if one does not much care for le Carré’s Absolute Friends, Wood’s assertion that “One of the reasons that [le Carré’s] well-written thrillers were so enthusiastically mistaken for literary novels was that, like their richer cousins, they opened a new world,” seems two or three steps beyond argument; instead it feels like a proclamation from the outer edge of petulance. Wood further claims that despite the “neatness of le Carré’s prose,” his characters “are, precisely, agents—agents of his plots…. [I]t is, all the same, genre-writing. The prose always observes its own conventions rather than revealing anything new, deep, or truthful.”
Wood is probably our best critic. He has that rarity: a supple but finally unbending aesthetic posture that he elaborates upon, sometimes explains, but always brilliantly defends. Wood is also, it should be said, a writer of admirable fair-mindedness, but, as with Updike, one sees here a critic content to review a novel only after regulating it to an utterly vasectomized genre. Even Wood’s praise for le Carré’s earlier, superior novels has about it a tired huff of impatience. It is almost as if le Carré’s books are genre novels less because of how they are written than what they are about, much as the often unfair term “chick lit” unfairly rockets novels that happen to be about women to planet Estrogen.
People actually are spies, however. People such as George Smiley really did (and continue) to exist, even if most of le Carré’s detail and terminology was, as Wood points out, “entirely invented.” Why are novels of spies and political intrigue often and so instantly cast aside as the stuff of “boyish daydream” when this world is all about us, filled with real, if not always verifiable, women and men? The frenzies for dismissal spread down the ranks of the literary thriller. Wood once claimed that Robert Stone—the author of what is, for my money, the greatest-ever American political literary thriller, Dog Soldiers—was, upon closer inspection, not a literary artist at all but rather something Wood called a “leathery regular.” I can understand someone not liking Stone’s work—it is violent, terse, and often bumps into the near-sentimentality of Hemingway nihilism—but I for one have a hard time imagining any reader of Dog Soldiers not recognizing that its author is at least as committed to psychological realism and the emotional truthfulness of his time as a Proust or James. But there are guns and smack-running and grimy little deaths in Dog Soldiers. Genre opens its arms, and literature ducks out the back.
There are other literary thrillers out there that are not so much condescended to by critics as simply ignored. Because they have some elements of the political literary thriller, many of these novels get carelessly spat out after little more than a taste. Bob Shacochis’s 1993 novel Swimming in the Volcano, despite being a finalist for the National Book Award, and despite being one of the finest first novels of the decade, and despite being possibly the best Anglo novel on Caribbean politics since Greene’s own Our Man in Havana, wandered out of print (a situation Grove Press recently rectified). A novel I edited while working at Henry Holt, Brian Littlefair’s Desert Burial (2002), is as gripping, well-written, relentless, and strange a literary thriller as I have read, depicting, as it does, the clandestine mechanisms and horrid politics of a real-world problem: nuclear-waste disposal. I anticipated what I hoped would be at least a strong critical reaction in favor of the book. Instead it was barely reviewed at all. Why? I suspect because, like so many literary thrillers, its subject matter was too boyishly thrilling for literary readers and too unpalatably literary for thriller readers. The stakes within many literary thrillers are an all-or-nothing game: something like the fate of the world often hangs in the balance. How fitting, then, that finding a readership for these wonderfully but difficultly hybrid books can become a similarly all-or-nothing gambit.
Mark Jacobs’s A Handful of Kings was published by Simon and Schuster in February 2004. It is a novel of terrorism and diplomacy, and peopled by an impressively multifarious cast. Jacobs’s prose can stun, and his characters’ meditations on how best they might serve their cause or country are filled with insight of vital newness and urgency. It is certainly a novel of Now, but it has a psychological acuity and ceaseless insistence upon dowsing the complications of character and motive. This helps propel it to atmospheres of sophistication miles above that of typical thrillers.
In a world of exploding embassies, rancidly partisan abuses of intelligence, and spies whose covers are blown with the apparent approval of our fearless leaders, one might think that A Handful of Kings would have been enthusiastically received. Simon and Schuster’s sell-line on the jacket copy seems to have been written with a similar sense of anticipation: “With explosive tension and masterful suspense, A Handful of Kings is a page-turning thriller about what really happens in the world of espionage, by an insider who has lived it.” And yet while most of the reviews Kings did receive were positive, the book lamentably, and inexplicably, failed to cause much of a stir.
An insider who has lived it? Like his diplomo-literary forebears James Fenimore Cooper (Consul at Lyon, 1826), Washington Irving (Minister to Spain, 1842–1846), Nathaniel Hawthorne (Consul at Liverpool, 1853–1857), and William Dean Howells (Consul at Venice, 1861–1865), to say nothing of the writers with some passing involvement in the world of espionage (Greene, le Carré, Robert Byron, even cookbook-author Julia Child, who worked for the forerunner of the CIA), Jacobs has toiled within various spheres of American diplomacy. Unlike his forebears, who typically spun their transitory appointments out of flaxen nepotism (Hawthorne and President Pierce were tight college chums, for instance), Jacobs is a professional diplomat. He has worked in American embassies for more than a decade, usually as a cultural attaché and information officer, in postings such as Bolivia, Spain, and Turkey. While doing this no doubt time-consuming work Jacobs managed to publish, prior to Kings, three books: the short-story collections A Cast of Spaniards (1994) and The Liberation of Little Heaven (1998), and Stone Cowboy (1997), a brilliant novel of an American woman’s search for her stoner-prophet little brother in the forests of Bolivia. Robert Olen Butler has said, “No writer is as brilliant as Mark Jacobs at exploring the rich fictional realm of the American abroad,” and yet his work is not only about Americans. Jacobs’s imagination is the wandering equivalent of a global Bedouin. He has written of Turkish rock bands and of Paraguayan generals, of Miami and of Mengele. He has also admirably refused to indulge in any of the we-are-the-world-type platitudes one suspects the sensitive nature of his government work might have obligated in a less probing writer. Roger, the titular “stone cowboy” of his first novel, for instance, makes the following, highly alienating observation on the book’s very first page: “All Bolivians were trolls.… They were short and dark and strange, not like people, really, but humanlike to a certain extent.” Jacobs is capable as well of great sympathy, even for the fallen, violent men so typical of struggling nations. Indeed, the characters of whom he is most contemptuous are invariably Americans who lack the emotional empathy to put themselves in the psychic moccasins of others. Jacobs’s work, in many ways, is an attempt to force people into the minds of those they are least willing to understand. This goes not only for his characters but his readers.
A Handful of Kings first gives us Vicky Sorrell, a thirty-three-year-old cultural attaché officer in Spain. The novel opens with her decision to quit the embassy in Madrid, a choice that dovetails with the dumping of her boyfriend and fellow diplomat, Wyatt. Vicky is “the only patriot in the foreign service,” a woman who believes fiercely “in service to one’s country, and in not talking about service to one’s country.” According to Wyatt, Vicky is also “living proof that we’re better than they know.” Jacobs nails the conflicted nature of lower-level diplomats perfectly. Many people who engage in such work are often cynical and browbeaten by the idiocies of Washington, as anyone who has plied such folk with a few beers can attest. Vicky is sick of it: sick of office politics, sick of Ambassador Duffey (a bland, smiling dunce appointed because of his campaign contributions to an unnamed but presumably Texan president, and whose own staff sends around long emails filled with all the clichés the ambassador has used during his official speeches), but most of all Vicky is sick of her job:
She joined the foreign service out of curiosity. She wanted to see how the world worked.… And she got what she wanted, but the isolation inside chancery buildings was hermetic. It was difficult to keep separate a sense of mission from a sense of privilege. It was just as hard to distinguish detachment from superiority. The bureaucracy became a jungle gym on which talented and ambitious people climbed toward power.
Vicky is prevented from immediately abandoning her post by the unexpected appearance in Madrid of a famous American writer named J. J. Baines, who seems part Robert Stone, part Ken Kesey, and part Tom Robbins. Jacobs notes that Baines, a writer whose work wanders to the woollier perimeters of leftism, is entering “the reaping phase of his career.” He is author of well-known novels such as Mario Moving and White Sand (which, we learn, was translated into Spanish as The Singular Adventure of a Tall Man in a White Hat). The arrival of Baines elevates the novel up several quick floors, partly because of the fun Jacobs has at his expense. The titles of Baines’s novels are indicative. One thinks of Updike’s fictional novelist Henry Bech, whose own novel titles—Think Big, When the Saints—are similarly both wonderfully evocative and cruelly spoofy.
Baines calls Vicky out of the blue and asks if the cultural attaché might not arrange a Spanish welcoming party for him. Vicky (who is a fan of Baines’s work) agrees, but quickly grows to dislike the man’s reflexive presumptuousness. For one, his “voice made a reasonable request sound like a donation to the needy. In two short sentences he established his superior vantage. The way he spoke gave the impression that anywhere he looked was downhill from where Jack Baines happened to be standing.” Baines also puts highly personal questions to Vicky, “as though being a writer gave him the right to inquire and get answers.” What Vicky does not yet know is that Baines is bound up in a highly complicated intrigue. While on tour in South America promoting the Spanish translation of The Singular Adventure of a Tall Man in a White Hat, Baines is lured to a lunch where he thinks he will meet Gabriel Garcia Márquez. Instead he is kidnapped (a scene rendered terrifyingly well) by the Justice Concept. This is an oddly high-minded terrorist organization that has broken away from FARC, Colombia’s (real) revolutionary insurgency party, which has eschewed the cocaine trade as ignoble. The Justice Concept is headed by a man known as “the Badger,” so deemed for being the “ugliest man in Colombia.” The Badger is “the ultimate long-ball hitter,” and his Justice Concept typically does its business by kidnapping businessmen for seven-figure ransoms. After executing a young Colombian boy in Baines’s presence, the Badger attempts to press Baines into service for the Justice Concept, a mission that somehow involves the American embassy in Spain. Among other things, the Justice Concept wants a fair fight against the Colombian government, which it cannot get unless the United States pulls out its small but crucial contingent of military advisors and matériel. Baines, despite his ostensible political sympathies, refuses. Which is when Baines learns that his nephew, Ben, is being held by Justice Concept agents in the United States. (Making Baines not only childless and wifeless but everythingless—he has no human connection other than his work—is a nice and meanly appropriate backdrop for Baines’s essential nature.) The now thoroughly horrified Baines agrees, and is shortly dispatched to Madrid to learn everything he can about the American embassy and anyone who works there, which unfortunately places Vicky at the plot’s white-hot center. The conspiracy itself remains unclear for the lion’s share of the story, but we do learn its code name: Un puñado de reyes, or “a handful of kings.”
A Handful of Kings, which unfolds in decidedly short-story-like chapters usually consigned to the consciousness of a single character, becomes most mesmeric while narrating the ordeal of Baines’s nephew Ben, who is being held by his Justice Concept keepers in a decrepit Buffalo apartment. In what may well be a deeply mixed compliment, it is hard to think of another writer who renders scenes of torture and growing dread as well as Jacobs. The naïve Ben believes he has been kidnapped because of some marijuana he is holding for a friend, and his confusion only grows as his torment worsens. Here is Jacobs on Ben gazing hopelessly out a window: “Looking out level with the tops of the trees made the apartment into a tree house, a place where adventures happened. This was not the kind of adventure Ben had wanted to lose himself in.” He thinks, too, of his parents: “Ben didn’t want to be unfair to his father, who had a partly deserved reputation for reading poetry for pleasure.” Soon these Justice Concept myrmidons place Ben’s hand on a table, flatten it, and reduce his metacarpal bones to powder with a savage blow from a pistol butt: Ben “wanted to scream but stopped himself by crying. The crying shamed him. This was not the way you were supposed to react to danger and pain.” And soon after that they are doing things to poor Ben that made this reader suck in a quick, teeth-chilling breath of anxious sympathy.
If Ben is Jacobs’s go-to character for situationally compelling moments, his most interesting character is probably Marc Karulevich, the Madrid embassy’s resident CIA case officer. Marc is not one of the calmly tormented Cold War custodians that we find in le Carré. Of Marc, Jacobs notes that in order “to escape the shadows in the world in which he worked, he had been scrupulously faithful to an ideal of duty.” In his CIA duties Marc plays what Jacobs nicely calls “information poker.” He also becomes a way for Jacobs to explore the new and often scary vagaries a CIA officer now has to anticipate, counteract, and endure. (Though the terrorism in this novel is not Islamist there are several references to Islamist terror, and much talk of the Justice Concept’s terror tactics concern its similarities and dissimilarities to it.) Anyone who has lately visited an American embassy—even in friendly nations such as Spain—can attest to how hugely guarded and fortresslike our embassies now appear. The mazes of concrete pilings, the reinforced walls, the perimeters of grim and heavily armed young guardians: one half decade ago, only a few particularly imperiled embassies suffered such exoskeletal refurbishment. Now they are all like this—and if this does not bespeak a very real loss of American safety and esteem around the world, then I do not know what does. Marc’s concern for secure phone lines, his constant awareness of surveillance, and his obsession with proper security are all, one senses, Jacobs’s subtle way of grieving the American policies and responses that helped get us into such a global mess.
Marc is aware that something worrying is brewing with Baines and the Justice Concept, having been tipped off to a rough outline of the plot by his local informant, a doomed Spaniard named Carlos. The Justice Concept, it seems, is using the ETA, a (real) Basque separatist group and reliable nemesis of the Spanish government, for logistical help in Madrid. (If this seems somewhat convoluted, it should be said that Jacobs is truly enlightening on how the colonized people of South and Latin America feel about their Spanish cultural sires, and on the webs of relationship this interplay has engendered among revolutionaries on both sides of the exchange.) Marc reveals to Vicky what he has learned, and instructs her to draw Baines out. For Marc, it turns out, has a bit of a thing for Vicky, who Jacobs describes as “more attractive than seemed warranted, or fair if fairness entered in.… The light green eyes made the sort of visual sense you didn’t expect with the black hair.” Well, Wood and Updike are surely somewhat right about genre: sometimes it is hard to rise above it. Why Jacobs needs to make Vicky so attractive—why male writers are always making their female characters so attractive—is in all likelihood a problem we can trace back to Keats. But in Vicky’s case it is distracting and even a little silly. Spies and diplomats are less frequently statuesque Natashas than they are Aldrich Ames–style mugwumps. Happily, Jacobs does not take this very far, for Marc is already involved with Lupe, the far more believably hot daughter of a prominent and unreconstructed Spanish right-winger who fought for Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Lupe and Marc’s relationship adds little to the novel but much to Marc. While their love affair is dopey, it is dopey in the sweet, confusing way actual love affairs often are dopey. To Marc, dating Lupe is maddening, inchoate, and above all dreamy. In other words, it is precisely what one imagines dating a rich, spoiled young Spanish woman might be like. Marc himself is far from a matinee idol, and he suspects that, to Lupe, he “was the slum she visited to score some speed.” Lupe asks, “What do you like best about me, Marc?” Marc replies, “Your acute social conscience.” Lupe: “What’s that?” Marc: “Exactly. And I like your nail polish.” These scenes read a little as if Robert Stone had directed Whit Stillman’s Barcelona.
A Handful of Kings abounds with passages worthy of citation: “Inés shook her handsome head. Sometimes the Spaniards made Marc think of thoroughbred dogs. They were Afghans, maybe, or greyhounds, or another of those sleek, high-strung, and self-regarding breeds that went for a lot of money.” Here is Jacobs nastily evoking a whole nation, Chile, in a few sharp sentences: “The problem was too much idyllic sunshine wherever he looked, making the Andes scenery look like a geographical affectation: so much natural splendor in a single country, and a photogenic coastline, too. No fallible people, and certainly not a people who had produced the likes of General Pinochet, deserved such a homeland.” He notes that one character’s girlfriend “lived in an apartment in which, she had been pleased to learn, Salvador Dalí once simulated a nervous breakdown.” Another character’s “pretty green car sliced through an invisible pudding of heat.”
Other things do not work quite as well. There is a low-mileage subplot about Vicky’s dead father and his likely involvement in covert intelligence during Vietnam, and Jacobs has an odd, Tarantino-like narrative tic of opening with a scene moments after some climacteric event and then instantly flashing back to it. By my lights there is only one truly bad line in the book—“He was perfect, sexy as rainwater sin, and she wanted to touch him”—but sometimes one feels that Jacobs’s mania for full-frame description gets the better of him: he dots several characters’ descriptive i’s, for instance, by telling us what their breath smells like. Finally, one hopes against hope that our actual diplomats and spies truly are as clever and engaged with high lit as Jacobs’s own creations. Everyone seems to be on fairly close speaking terms with J. J. Baines’s work; Marc even tells Vicky to “read what John Jacob Baines told the Paris Review about the use of force in a noble cause.” Maybe Paris Review interviews really do find their way into CIA case officers’ files. But if so… Jesus Christ.
As the “handful of kings” plot, staged to coincide with the celebration of a Fourth of July party at the embassy, becomes both clearer and more sinister, the novel increasingly belongs to Marc. Marc realizes—too late—that Baines’s blundering involvement is actually a diversion, that the plot is far more rangy and widespread than anyone has anticipated. Jacobs at one point notes: “Marc knew it was dangerous to feel the way he felt, as if he and Juan Manuel [Marc’s Spanish intelligence colleague] and a small number of people like them were the only thing standing between this festival of civic innocence and bloody ruin, anarchy, zealots with guns. It was dangerous because it magnified the role he played, which distorted his vision of what he could accomplish.” What is to be noted here is the admirably played-down potential aftereffects of what Marc is up against: not the collapse of civilization but simply “bloody ruin” and “zealots with guns.” The terrorist plot in A Handful of Kings has a pathetic, sordid aspect to it, which I suspect is intentional. We need to remind ourselves that the global terror network is not exactly attracting the planet’s best minds, and one way to interpret, for instance, Baines’s flirtations with revolutionaryism in his novels is as Jacobs’s own stern warning that one should neither assume too much nor too little of the dangers of terrorism. Its players are intimately human, as are its attractions, as are its losses. One terrorist says to Baines with disgust, “You’re not as political as your writing, are you?… You’re an entertainer, after all.”
A Handful of Kings hits its final stretch of pages amid numerous kidnappings, several car chases, a shootout, and a good deal of death. Jacobs handles scenes of action as well as any literary-thriller writer alive, especially for touches such as this: “There were only a few shots, and they were spaced at intervals. It sounded less like a firefight than a hunting party not wasting ammunition.” Yes, the final calamity, the moment toward which the novel has been building, happens hundreds of yards offstage. We never see it, just as Graham Greene, in his “entertainments,” routinely closed his own narrative slats at the perfectly wrong moment. It would be the “wrong moment,” that is, if one were watching a film. Novels, with the seriousness with which they go about approximating life as it is felt and lived, cannot always afford the expensive, cheapening spectacle of finale. Moreover, by the end of Kings, it becomes clear that the plot is far from over; many of the major characters swept up in the Justice Concept’s conspiracy remain missing. The terror that we have been promised will be defeated instead lives on, around the corner, down the street, in darkened apartments throughout our capitals of civilization. And indeed, one sickening coincidence in A Handful of Kings involves a main character’s kidnapping near Atocha Station in Madrid—which would be blown to smithereens by Islamist terrorists one month after the book’s publication.
With this novel, Mark Jacobs has written neither Greene-like prophecy nor submitted one of le Carré’s artful diagnostic analyses of the psychic health of espionage’s hidden realms. He has written a novel rich with feeling for the mysterious world his characters inhabit, and he has put them, and us, through hell in a very small place. The novel is thrilling not for its action or some vestigial obedience to its supposed genre, but for its moments of human recognition and harrowing yet still human surprise. What occurs in A Handful of Kings is extraordinary, but it ends with no quick balm of relief. As the Badger tells Baines, “There is no such thing as an uninvolved observer. Maybe it works in a story. In the real world, everyone is involved.” That is art. But is it consolation?