A CIA officer’s 1968 investigation into a death linked to a secretive compound smells of a KGB assassination—or perhaps his own agency’s involvement—in this spy novel.
Lt. Richard Nolan of the U.S. Army (a CIA cover ID) is in the Mojave Desert in search of missing trash hauler Jeremiah McLemore. His disappearance is suspicious because he was contracted by Camp Harrison, aka Camp X, a mysterious facility reputedly used for Army training. Working with local cop Officer Thomas Bell, Nolan eventually finds a body near McLemore’s beloved Willys Jeep. It appears to be an accidental death, possibly due to extreme heat, but footprints could mean a staged murder. This is supported by McLemore’s earlier strange encounter: an unknown man asked to examine the trash he was collecting. A journalist’s column, however, throws everyone into a tailspin when it suggests McLemore was assassinated by foreign agents. Nolan’s boss, Chief of Counterintelligence James Jesus Angleton, seems to think the column is the Soviets’ attempt to generate disinformation. But Nolan soon realizes that, while he’s withholding some material from Angleton, his boss is likely doing the same. Answers may lie inside the walls of Camp X, which Nolan begins surveilling, as he knows very little about the compound. When his wife and teen daughter subsequently vanish, he suspects an abduction. Either someone’s convinced he’s gathered classified Camp X intelligence, for which the Soviet Union would shell out millions, or the CIA wants to ensure that he keeps mum about whatever he’s learned.
The most striking element of Knoerle’s (Crystal Meth Cowboys, 2015, etc.) story is its configuration. The book comprises transcriptions of Nolan’s audio recordings, private correspondence, telex transmissions, and personal notes. Most are in the style of a formal report, but the descriptions aren’t bloodless, especially with details from an observant Nolan. For example, he and former policeman Bob Reese creep into McLemore’s house in the early-morning hours: “We were dressed in dark colors, wearing disposable gloves. No dogs barked. The only sign of life was a stray coyote that darted off at our approach.” The shifting narrative formats are easy to follow (predominantly linear), and Knoerle even gives them distinction. Sometimes Nolan is relaying a scene based solely on his recollection, while other times it’s a transcript rife with deficiencies, like a conversation with gaps indicating inaudible segments. There’s an indisputable mystery playing in the background, from Camp X to what exactly happened to McLemore. Even Nolan himself is an enigma: readers don’t immediately learn his name or his specific job, and one can’t help but wonder (in light of an editor’s intermittent notations) whether the protagonist is still alive. Some of the reveals are surprising, and the author sprinkles them throughout in lieu of saving them all until the end. Smartly understated humor is suitably spy-related; when Angleton’s secretary recites a code to Nolan, the latter alters his response to subvert a potential meeting—and hears a gasp in return.
A standout espionage tale that not only delivers a riveting plot, but a stellar presentation as well.