In Fulbright’s (Driving Mad, 2014) thriller, the real threat during the Cold War in the 1980s is the French president, who claims to have a weapon capable of shifting the balance of global power.
Henry Wright, an Englishman working in Brussels, is recruited by a secret U.S. intelligence agency. Henry is employed as an interpreter, a relatively painless job, but distrust within the states puts the man in peril. John Heldring, head of IBIS, a commodities-trading group that’s really a front for the Pentagon and State Department’s covert operations, for one, thinks Henry is a Pentagon spy and goes gunning for him. Superpowers America and the USSR, meanwhile, are understandably nervous when Henri Fouquet, France’s president, announces that French scientists have created bombs that can generate a devastating electromagnetic pulse. Mark Tollworth, a man from the Foundation for the Rescue and Restitution of Collected Objets d’Art, promises Henry a safe return to Brussels and a $250,000 paycheck if he simply delivers a message to Fouquet. The fascinating titular protagonist is the antithesis of a typical literary hero: he is seemingly unqualified for counterintelligence (agents erroneously suspect him of espionage), and he avoids the majority of gunfire, as Henry himself admits, by sheer luck. He’s also habitually contentious, mocking American slang and complaining about the tea at Starbucks. Fortunately, the story is rife with characters even more absorbing than Henry, especially Clem Haight, who essentially becomes one of Henry’s bodyguards, and former KGB assassin (and knife-throwing circus performer) Dmitri Zhukhovsky. The intelligent prose and sporadic (but welcome) action sequences are too often sidelined by incidental scenes; e.g., Henry and others have a trivial discussion of his name’s origin. But the characters’ delightfully ambiguous motives and backgrounds make distinguishing good or bad guys a near impossibility, giving the story an atmosphere of perennial unease. Not everyone is as good at steering clear of bullets as Henry, so the novel loses a few characters before it’s over. The author likewise leaves the ending wide open for a potential sequel.
Henry is indelible, and Fulbright smartly surrounds him with equally memorable characters in this exceptional outing.