When I started reading Lauren Wilkinson debut novel, American Spy, I admit that it was with only modest expectations. I picked up the book because I was intrigued by its premise—a late-Cold War thriller in which a black woman is recruited by the CIA to get close to left wing African leader. But I tend not to have great success with spy novels. I always end up liking the idea of them more than the execution. This is probably more a reflection of my reading tastes than the books’ quality, but nevertheless it’s kept me from delving very deep into the genre. American Spy, however, surprised and ultimately engrossed me, perhaps because it’s a lot less interested in spycraft and double-crosses than its description might lead you to expect. The espionage story it tells, though compelling and well-crafted, is also (deliberately, I think) quite straightforward. The book is instead more interested in its heroine, Marie Mitchell, and in the central revelation that drives her life—that her skill as a spy is rooted in her experiences as a black American.
We first meet Marie in the early 90s, when she kills an invader in her home. Moments later, when the police arrive, they almost kill Marie themselves for holding the gun with which she shot her assailant. Even if we didn’t know Marie’s race from the cover illustration or back matter, it would be easy to guess it now. Of the policeman who searches her for weapons, Marie thinks, “He was twice my size, but if he’d shot me, they’d say in the report that it was because I posed a threat to him.” After giving a statement to the police, Marie packs up her young sons and takes them to her mother’s farm in Martinique. There she writes the narrative that makes up American Spy, trying to explain to her sons why she’s being pursued, and who their father was.
Marie’s narrative takes us to her childhood in the 60s and 70s, and her career as an FBI agent in the 80s, when she’s recruited by the CIA to spy on Thomas Sankara, the recently-ascended president of Burkina Faso. Throughout these chapters, Wilkinson returns again and again to the idea that African-Americans live a double life that makes them uniquely suited to the world and work of espionage. Marie’s biracial mother spends her teenage years being forced to pass for white by her white relatives, until she “ruins” their hard work by marrying a dark-skinned man. Her father is a policeman whose loyalties are repeatedly questioned, and who tried to change the system from within only to be forced out of it. Her older sister, Helene, becomes obsessed with spycraft as a child, training herself to observe the people around her and hide her true emotions—skills that chime with frequently-expressed ideas about the African-American experience being one of playing a role and tailoring one’s behavior to suit the expectations of (and avert danger from) the white establishment. When Marie meets Ed Ross, the man who will recruit her into the CIA, she notes the remnants of a Southern accent and concludes that Ross knows how to play it up or down according to his audience. “I hope you can see me well enough in these journals,” Marie writes, “to understand why I instinctively recognized this ability in him.”
Marie’s assignment with the CIA makes American Spy a sort of mirror image to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. Like the hero of that movie, she joins law enforcement with dreams of both personal advancement and meaningful service, but finds herself—when she isn’t being ignored and belittled due to her gender and race—used primarily to spy on black civil rights organizations. But unlike in BlacKkKlansman, the option to redirect Marie’s energies towards white supremacist organizations doesn’t exist in American Spy. Ross wants her to get close to Sankara, a Communist and pan-Africanist, whom he views as a dangerous radical. As he explains to Marie, the CIA is bankrolling an opposition party in Burkina Faso, in a direct attempt to challenge Sankara’s Cuban-inspired ideas of revolution as a one-party machine. The plan is to discredit Sankara by forcing him to clamp down on his opposition, while Marie’s task is to secure compromising photographs of him.
American Spy‘s handling of Sankara is one of the most intriguing aspects of the book. Marie is determinedly anti-Communist, less for any ideological reason than because her observations have led her to conclude that it doesn’t work, inevitably devolving into oppression and immiseration. But she’s also deeply impressed with Sankara (as well as attracted to him), whose achievements include vaccination programs and promoting women’s rights. Several scenes in the book stress Sankara’s charisma as a revolutionary, his genuine belief in the possibility of making a world without the evils of imperialism, colonialism, and racism. But American Spy is also clear-eyed about the failures of Sankara’s revolution, the way he clamps down on organizations that emerge from outside his own, like trade unions, which eventually makes him indistinguishable from a dictator. We, and Marie, know that at least some of this resistance has been instigated by the CIA, but that doesn’t make Sankara’s response any less oppressive or short-sighted.
This ambivalence over Sankara dovetails with Marie’s own ambivalence over her choice to join the FBI—a decision that is questioned by several characters over the course of the novel, and for which Marie is never able to offer a single answer. Did she do it as a way of honoring Helene, who died when Marie was in her teens? Did she do it because she hopes that being on the side of law enforcement will protect her from the oppression experienced by other African-Americans? Does she think she can change things from the inside? The central question of American Spy is what people like Marie and Sankara—smart, determined, eager to usher in a better future—can do in a world where the systems they’re expected to work within are both hopelessly corrupted, and bent on their own preservation.
Like a lot of cerebral adventure stories, American Spy gets a little wobbly as it approaches its end. Things move a little too fast, and storylines are resolved a little too suddenly (there are also a lot of loose ends, which might be a literary device reminding us that complete closure is never possible, and might be a sign that Wilkinson is thinking about writing a sequel). Still, that’s a minor quibble for a novel that ended up being a great deal richer and more engaging than I was expecting. A lot of spy fiction deals with the dark underbelly of the Cold War, but I’m not sure how much of it addresses the CIA’s misadventures in Africa, or approaches African revolutionaries in a serious, fair-minded way. If that sounds like your thing, American Spy has my highest recommendation.