Babb’s debut novel tells of a young Missouri boy drafted during the Korean War and selected for a counterintelligence school.
Frank Blake is draft-ready for the U.S. conflict with Korea, but instead, he’s trained as a Counter Intelligence Corps agent. He’s sent to the CIC detachment in Panama, where he lives with his wife and amasses intel to circumvent Communist activity. His time in Panama is short but memorable, particularly the night spent at the Hotel Central with the enigmatic Julia. The prologue sets the mood almost immediately; it works as a tease, mentioning Julia and certain life-altering decisions. Most of the book follows Frank’s career and training in counterintelligence, but hostility looms in Panama, where information is the coin of the realm. Friendly banter can be a precursor to requesting intelligence, and Frank acknowledges that even his supervisor, Luis, isn’t telling him everything. Foreign presence and foreignness prevail as themes: Frank noted that the locals “smiled a lot, but it didn’t mean they liked you.” The agent counters harsh Panamanian life with understated cynicism; neighborhood kids broken or killed by war had a spot of “really bad luck.” There’s even some humor, e.g., the colonel thinks his shoeshiner is a Communist spy and hopes surveillance will solve the problem while allowing him to retain the man’s excellent services. Chapters are so tight and self-contained, they could stand alone as short stories. The author allows the mystery of Julia to drive the story home to a rewarding conclusion that is just open-ended enough, and an epilogue wraps up the specifics, historically speaking, on the Korean War.
A riveting history lesson on communism in the 1950s.