BEIRUT: The most basic quality a CIA agent should possess is surely circumspection. Discretion, however, is not one of Morgan Cooper’s gifts.
“For a woman who had to keep secrets, Morgan Cooper had a dangerous habit,” runs the opening paragraph of “Taking Morgan,” investigative journalist David Rose’s debut novel. “When she felt stressed or anxious, she would voice her thoughts aloud.”
Set between Washington, D.C., London, Oxford, Tel Aviv and Gaza, this spy thriller is thankfully not as farcical as its opening passage suggests.
The novel is situated during the spring and summer of 2007.
Football mom and spy Morgan Cooper is returning to active CIA fieldwork after years chained to a desk in the U.S. capital, having sacrificed overseas adventure to raise her two young children.
She’s sent, undercover, to the Gaza Strip to assess the balance of power between U.S.-backed Fatah and the democratically elected Hamas. Upon arrival, Cooper sits down to lunch with Abdel-Nasser, her Palestinian agent and secret lover, and is immediately kidnapped.
Complicating matters, her husband – a pro bono human rights lawyer who specializes in defending Muslim terrorists and Guantanamo detainees – is in the midst of a high-profile case and is expecting his wife to return home and resume her role as primary caregiver to their inconvenient offspring.
Imprisoned in a basement, tortured, sleep deprived and routinely interrogated, Cooper spends most of the novel in extreme stress-induced anxiety. Luckily she never shows the slightest propensity for voicing her thoughts aloud, even when alone.
Instead she carefully calculates the minimum amount of information she can disclose to avoid further torture, while retaining the state secrets that she has accumulated during her years working in the glamorous world of clandestine operation logistics.
In the meantime, her husband flies to the U.K., leaves his confused and worried children with his parents in Oxford, and decamps to Tel Aviv. Frustrated with the seeming incompetence of his wife’s spook handlers – who appear to be getting nowhere in tracking her down – he decides to nose around the Gaza Strip himself, using Hamas contacts gleaned from grateful defendants in a prior court case.
Like most spy thrillers, “Taking Morgan” has its fair share of sex and violence. For a novel in which large sections are spent detailing the boredom of captivity, it is also surprisingly fast-paced.
The tension is diffused somewhat by Rose’s habit of switching from the past to the present tense whenever a particularly dramatic scene is about to occur.
Once readers detect this, the element of surprise is negated, slackening the novel’s twists.
What makes “Taking Morgan” stand out from the hoard of contemporary Middle East espionage thrillers penned by Western journalist-turned novelists, a clutch of which routinely appear on the market every year, is that fact that it’s premised on real events.
In April 2008, Rose published a lengthy investigative piece in Vanity Fair, in which he exposed the role of U.S. Black Ops in Hamas’ Gaza election in June 2007. He detailed what he termed “yet another scandalously covert and self-defeating Middle East debacle: part Iran-contra, part Bay of Pigs,” revealing that U.S. officials had armed and financed Fatah in the hope of sponsoring a coup, thereby unwittingly precipitating Hamas’ preemptive strike to cement their control.
This is the background to the novel, onto which Rose grafts car chases, Al-Qaeda machinations, untrustworthy intelligence agents and a calculating widow. Unlike many of the more lurid novels in the same vein, Rose deploys a smidgen of emotional nuance to accent his airbrushed sex scenes between improbably beautiful characters.
The diametrically opposed career choices and ethics of Morgan Cooper and her husband allow Rose to explore the relationship dynamics of an emotionally estranged couple, shoved into sharp relief by their physical estrangement.
As the two protagonists reflect individually on their marriage and speculate about its future, they navigate the complexities of love, loyalty and betrayal.
Rose has authored several nonfiction books based on his work as an investigative reporter, among them “Guantanamo: America’s War on Human Rights,” and his sympathies in the novel are clear. A retired Israeli intelligence officer warns Cooper about the desperation of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. “With tacit permission from your government, we have penned them in,” he says. “We have created a laboratory to cultivate extremist, a pressure cooker for hate.”
The U.S. and Israeli characters do not come off particularly well, but neither do the Arabs. The best that can be said is that Rose is even in his condemnation of everyone.
Like many of us hacks, Rose knows how to spin a yarn but his style is far from literary. He does best when he steers clear of figurative language. Descriptions such as “the sun was a swollen orange dipping to the milky horizon” make it hard to take anything that follows very seriously.
Still, Rose’s partially factual novel is marginally more believable and better researched than many in its genre and is likely to interest those who prefer spies of the John Le Carré ilk to those of Ian Fleming.David Rose’s “Taking Morgan” is published by Quartet Books and is available online from amazon.com