Tree Farm Books


Before Eisenhower left office, a subcategory of thriller quickly tagged "the CIA novel" had started to crop up on enterprising publishers' lists. Protagonists during this heyday of the Agency tended to come through as hardbellied, unreflective patriots, foils a la Tom Clancy. But once the Bay of Pigs was recognized for the spectacular embarrassment it was, a succeeding generation of writers started to project the operations shop at Langley increasingly as a paradoxical and sinister apparatus: a mixed global blessing, a nemesis in world affairs.

With this book, Burton Hersh opens the genre up. The novel's hero, Owen Rheinsdorf, is a big, gruff, funny, decent, somewhat frustrated ex-Agency operations officer in his middle fifties who finds himself contending with increasing ethical discomfort. Attempting to raise his feckless teenage daughter Aurora, Owen has been retained to help with a series of special projects by his one-time boss in the Agency, Munson Dyckler. A scion of the OSS generation, Dyckler's ruthless methods and ornate morality have begun to alarm Rheinsdorf.

Rheinsdorf's misgivings soon center on Dyckler's exploitation of Pruitt Rumsey. Rumsey is an imaginative sociopath, a seasoned young assassin with a penchant for violating children. It is Munson Dyckler's strategy to turn Rumsey loose on the political campaign of a rising racist demagogue named Bunker Doyle. Rheinsdorf, an experienced agent handler, will be expected to oversee the unpredictable Rumsey, keep him out of trouble, prevent him from going too far.

Just as he sets out reluctantly to keep an eye on Rumsey, Owen Rheinsdorf finds himself falling in love with Dyckler's daughter, Lauren. Like Owen's dead wife, the bewitching Lauren Dyckler is more than skeptical of the damages a life in the covert warfare business inflicts. Owen is badly blocked. Lauren is a natural sexual healer; as bit by bit Owen begins to come to terms with himself incidents from his career recur, trouble Owen, force him to confront his values.

It is this buildup of episodes in Rheinsdorfs successive duty stations — Germany, Viet Nam, Lisbon, Uruguay, Panama, Moscow, Washington ever and again — that define what a life in covert warfare means. The tradeoffs, the breakthroughs, the internecine intelligence politics.

While aghast at Pruitt Rumsey's foragings, what carries the alert reader into the story is this novelist's command of biting social comedy. Bunker Doyle's oily Babbitry, Dyckler's patrician presumption, Rumsey's witless and incestuous Cracker mother and that Kiwanis burnout of a father — the book is borne to its climax by a series of hilariously observed secondary characters. The story line energizes this material, but it is as literature that it comes fully to life.

As the author of what is generally regarded as a key work in the intelligence canon, The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA, Burton Hersh is conversant with secrets underneath secrets. Many reveal themselves throughout the primary incidents. Others — aspects of the Daniel Casolaro murder, or the ongoing top-secret government efforts to derive genetically selective virus — have yet to roil the surface of today's news.

This book is more than a pleasure. It is an education.