So many former CIA analysts turn to writing fiction, you have to wonder whether real life outside the agency seems to lack sufficient drama. Whatever, their willingness to lay bare their former lives often redounds to the benefit of fans of realistic spy fiction, like me. David McCloskey’s debut thriller, Damascus Station, is one of the best. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Andrew B. Wehrlen, and found it utterly engaging.
In the early days of the Syrian uprising, around 2011, Americans are determined to infiltrate the multi-pronged and highly paranoid security apparatus of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It’s a challenging task but certainly well worth doing.
CIA case officer Sam Joseph is helping his colleague and friend, Valerie Owens, exfiltrate an important Syrian asset. Assad’s agents are everywhere, and the panicky agent misses his meeting with Joseph and Owens. When their safe house is attacked, Joseph escapes, and Owens is arrested. Because she has diplomatic protection, they believe she will be safe. Not so. Evidence eventually emerges of her torture and death.
Joseph has plenty of motivation to return to Syria. Not only does he want to avenge Owens’s death, he must find and recruit another Syrian to help undermine the shaky Assad regime. Though student rebellions and terrorists’ assassination campaigns are doing their bit to destabilize the political situation, plenty of ruthless bad guys lead Assad’s security forces. Their anxieties and rivalries create a situation as stable as a bowl of nitroglycerine in an earthquake. The Americans need a fearless, highly motivated mole to go up against them.
Joseph finds the kind of person he’s looking for in Mariam Haddad, daughter of a commander in the Syrian Army and niece of a colonel in Assad’s chemical weapons program. Haddad works in Assad’s Palace—effectively Assad’s personal office. She is in a position to learn secrets. For family reasons, she’s vulnerable to Joseph’s outreach. McCloskey creates a nice balance between Mariam’s fear and self-doubt, on one hand, and her determination to bring down the evil men leading the security forces, on the other.
I wish McCloskey hadn’t chosen to raise the stakes by having Joseph and Haddad break one of the iron rules of clandestine work and fall in love, even though that makes the situation more dangerous for them both. Despite the cliché overtones, McCloskey manages to keep their relationship real. The tension keeps building as what he needs Haddad to do becomes increasingly difficult, and as evidence accumulates about an unthinkably deadly plot.
David McCloskey is a former CIA analyst whose writing bears the stamp of authenticity, and the book has received much praise by former Agency personnel. It was a finalist for the International Thriller Writers’ Best First Novel Award in 2022. Narrator Andrew Wehrlen makes Sam Joseph a convincing American character and creates distinctive voices for the many Syrian bad-guys as well. Highly recommended.
Looking for Great Reading? It’s my quarterly newsletter. Sign up here and receive three prize-winning short stories!