The bitter education of an African-American intelligence agent is framed against the background of a real-life coup d’état three decades ago in Burkina Faso.
It’s 1987, and Marie Mitchell has hit the wall as an FBI agent. She’s patronized and marginalized by her boss, who relegates her to little more than recruiting informants (or “snitches,” as she derisively calls them) and filing “oppressive amounts of paperwork.” This is not how this idealistic (but hardly naïve) daughter of an NYPD officer hoped her life would turn out back when she and her sister, Helene, dreamed of becoming secret agents when they grew up. At this low point of her professional life, Marie is recruited by Ed Ross, a smooth-talking CIA official, to take part in a covert operation to undermine the regime of Burkina Faso’s magnetic young president, Thomas Sankara, a Marxist influenced by the example of the martyred revolutionary Che Guevara. From the beginning of her assignment, Marie is both wary of the agency’s reasons for taking down Sankara and skeptical toward Sankara’s leftist politics, though the closer she gets to Sankara, the less inclined she is to dismiss his efforts to improve his nation’s welfare. Nevertheless, Marie has another, more personal motive for accepting the assignment: the agent-in-charge, Daniel Slater, was both a colleague and lover of her sister, who fulfilled her ambition to become a spy but died in a car accident whose circumstances remain a mystery to Marie and her family. The more embedded Marie gets in her assignment, the less certain she is of what that assignment entails and of who, or what, she’s really working for. Falling in love with her target—Sankara, who in real life was violently overthrown that same year—is yet another complication that further loosens Marie’s professional resolve. There are many tangled strands to unravel here for Marie, the reader, and first-time novelist Wilkinson, who nonetheless navigates the psychic and physical terrain of this tale of divided loyalties with the poise of such classic masters as Eric Ambler and Graham Greene spiked with late-20th-century black American intellectual history.
There’s an honorable, unsung tradition of African-American novelists using the counterspy genre as a metaphor for what W.E.B. Du Bois called "double consciousness," and Wilkinson’s book is a noteworthy contribution.