"Bloodmoney" by David Ignatius (W.W. Norton, 372 pages, $25.95)
Many fans of spy novels will be familiar with Ignatius, author of "Body of Lies," "Siro" and "The Increment." His latest is another book worthy of that genre.
"Bloodmoney" is set largely in Pakistan and takes us behind the scenes of today's headlines. It begins in South Waziristan, where a family about to enjoy a meal together is destroyed by a U.S. drone. A survivor of that attack, a computer genius named Omar al-Wazir, plots revenge on the United States, and our story ensues.
The book's plot moves between Pakistan, where an American is captured, tortured and killed, and California, where a new CIA intelligence unit is based. This unit, run by the stubborn, independent-minded Jeffrey Gertz, is using vast sums of money to try to buy the loyalty of America's enemies in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Soon another agent is killed, then another. Someone has infiltrated the operations and figured out when and where these agents will act.
Gertz assigns Sophie Marx, a young CIA counterterrorism officer, to get to the bottom of this fiasco. She first goes to London and visits Thomas Perkins, the head of a hedge fund called Alphabet Capital. Gertz has been providing inside information to Perkins that allows the hedge fund to make billions of dollars. Gertz then uses a majority share of these profits to fund his operation.
Meanwhile, the debonair and sly Cyril Hoffman, Gertz's mentor at CIA headquarters, meets with Lt. Gen. Mohammed Malik of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate to try to find out who is killing American agents.
Hoffman helps Sophie, but the closer she gets to her quarry, the more wary she becomes, not knowing who to trust. As she tells a man she interrogates, "Lying is the game."
Ignatius makes known early on — and repeats throughout the book — that the Pashtuns' tribal code demands vengeance. "Its pillars were personal honor, the obligation to avenge an insult, and the chivalry that allowed the stronger man to be generous toward the weaker one."
His insights into the culture of people in Afghanistan and Pakistan at times feel didactic, yet they also illumine not only his story but current events, and show why America has failed so often in its war there.
For example, Pashtun culture demands that "the victor in war must find a way to salve the dignity of the vanquished; otherwise, there would just be another war." Omar's favorite word in the Pashto language, melmastia, means hospitality. "That was the way wars ended."
The Americans could not understand why the Pashtuns would not refuse the asylum request from Arabs fleeing across the mountains. "The Americans demanded something the people of these mountains could not grant without great shame. You could say that it was a war about hospitality."
That insight seems lost on many of the characters of this book as well, and more deaths ensue. The writing includes a few stumbles, such as this trite explanation about Sophie's feelings about the death of one of her colleagues: "He had a wife and children." But for the most part Ignatius' prose is sharp and keeps the story moving.
Most readers — and certainly aficionados of tales of espionage — will enjoy this fast-paced and relevant novel, and will learn about Pashtun culture as well.