Valerie Plame's first spy novel borrows from the genre's best

Tampa Bay TimesDecember 19, 2013 



    By Valerie Plame and Sarah Lovett

    Blue Rider Press. 336 pp. $26.95.

That's Pierson, Vanessa Pierson. Chanel No. 005 to you, Bub.

In Blowback, the first fictional spy yarn from former covert CIA operative-turned-novelist Valerie Plame, readers are invited to follow the globe-trotting derring-do adventures of a brilliant, sexy, blond, sexy, renegade, sexy, femme fatale, sexy spy, who is hot (in more ways than one) on the trail of an evil-doing international arms dealer bent on helping the Iranians develop a nuclear weapon.

Where in heaven's name did the comely Plame come up with this character? Oh, did we mention she's sexy, too?

By now most of us are well aware of Plame's backstory. On a tip, her cover as a CIA covert operative was blown by the late Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak in retaliation against her diplomat husband, Joe Wilson, for openly disputing an assertion by President George W. Bush that Saddam Hussein was getting yellowcake uranium from Niger to develop nuclear weapons.

Blowback is a fast-paced, fun read, the perfect airplane book to while away a couple of hours. Co-written by novelist Sarah Lovett, the story jumps from Vienna to Cairo to London to New York to Cyprus to Washington, and yet none of the characters ever seems to go to sleep for more than a few minutes. By Page 320, the reader has jet lag, even if Vanessa Pierson barely yawns.

On the other hand, it is sort of hard to get a decent night's rest when so many bodies are dropping around our heroine. Slumber just might be fatal.

Pierson is in pursuit of a shadowy arms dealer named Bhoot, whom readers will readily recognize as a not-too-thinly-veiled version of real-life legendary Russian merchant of death Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year federal prison term ostensibly for being a really, really dangerous guy. (A variation of Bout was portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film Lord of War.)

Bhoot is to Pierson what Blofeld was to James Bond, a sociopathic villain, always just within reach, yet never quite vanquished, living to terrorize another day.

In Blowback, Pierson has reason to believe Bhoot is about to show up in Iran for a big meeting to deliver the final elements required to build the bomb. Pierson knows this bit of detail because numerous intelligence assets (read: human sources) have told her so. But where? Iran is a big country.

Alas, it seems just as each one of her assets is on the very cusp of telling her more, they are assassinated by Bhoot's henchman, a wily Chechen named Pauk. And it takes to about Page 250 before Pierson gets just the merest of hints that Pauk might be interested in bumping her off, too. Oh well, intelligence work has its limits.

In the meantime, Pierson has problems at the home office. She is engaged in an illicit and forbidden romance with a co-worker, and the CIA is a bit miffed over her pushing the agency's body bag budget through the roof.

Fans of the spy novel genre will quickly discover Blowback relies heavily on the influences of Ian Fleming, John le Carré, Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum. Can we expect The Bonwit Teller Identity next in the Pierson saga? Then again, if you are going to borrow spook tropes, why not from the best?

You don't need to be a literary agent to see that this book has "screen rights" written all over it, largely on the strength of the glamorous Plame's own real-life intelligence career.

But forgive a small nit to pick. You almost have to look twice at Blowback's dust jacket to find co-author Lovett's name. To be sure, a famous but inexperienced person teaming with a professional writer is nothing new in publishing. But Lovett in her own right is an established mystery novelist. Certainly she played a major role in crafting this book's pace, narrative and dialogue — elements that are sort of critical to writing a novel. Couldn't her billing have been just a tad bigger?

Blowback is just fun enough, engrossing enough to leave the reader awaiting the next Vanessa Pierson installment, if for nothing else than to see whether the vile Bhoot ever gets his comeuppance — as well as answering this book's nagging question: Will the woman ever get a decent night's sleep?



By Valerie Plame and Sarah Lovett

Blue Rider Press. 336 pp. $26.95.

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