Hawking Up Hairballs

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Identity Theory

I've just finished another novel by Peter Temple. This one is an international espionage thriller, Identity Theory. It reminded me a lot of John LeCarre at his best, at least in terms of substance and characterization. However, Temple's style is all his own. It's spare, and I mean that in the best sense of the term. No one can write as well as Temple does without working at his prose.

Identity Theory focuses on three characters whose destinies are intertwined. There's Niemand, which is German for "no one", a mercenary who has come into possession of a videotape that shows an American military death squad executing civilians in an Angolan village during the apartheid era. Even worse, these civilians are survivors of an experimental nerve gas that was sprayed on their village. They were executed so that there would be no witnesses to what had happened. The American government, of course, wants this tape, and they hire a private intelligence agency in German to locate Niemand and the tape. Anselm works for this firm. He's a former investigative reporter who is suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of being held hostage in Beirut for a time. Carolyn Wishart is a struggling investigative reporter in London who gets wind of the story. I won't say anything more about the plot, lest I give it away.

This novel is distinctly anti-American, but I don't think unfairly so. The death squad had been recruited from the U.S. Army's Delta Force to operate in Third World countries. Given what we know about the present adiminstration in Washington, the existence of such a unit is certainly plausible. It is also easy to believe that the U.S. intelligence establishment would be willing to kill to recover a tape of the sort that Temple imagines. However, the anti-American attitudes that are manifest in Identity Theory also indicate something else. They reflect the beliefs of a significant segment of public opinion in Temple's Australia. A writer of popular entertainments like this can't afford to stray too far from the opinions of his potential readership, not if he expects to sell books.

Identity Theory seems a particularly cynical book. That's what I initially thought, but I changed my mind after mulling it over. Espionage thrillers are cynical by their very nature. Without betrayals, there wouldn't be much of a story. In that sense, I guess, the genre brings out the worst in us. Their common subtext is that you can't trust anyone, and they seem to reinforce that belief. It seems sad to think that this might be true, but is it really wrong? Not in the world of espionage.


Blogger David Matthews said...

Sounds like someone I will enjoy reading. Thanks for the review.

11:37 PM  

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