First published in 1986; published digitally by Grand Central Publishing on July 29, 2014
A good spy novel should have intrigue and suspense and characters who wrestle with internal conflicts. It should recognize the moral ambiguity inherent in espionage. Most importantly, it should hold a reader's rapt attention from the first scene to the last. The November Man does all that. First published in 1986 and the first in a series, a digital edition of The November Man is being re-released to coincide with the release of a movie of the same name.
Alexa, a KGB assassin, has been ordered to kill the agent known as November despite his offer to defect to the Soviet Union. November, whose real name is Devereaux, thinks he is safe because he left the trade, erased himself from the world, and is living a nondescript life in Switzerland with the woman he loves and a boy he rescued. Whether Devereaux will be forced to return to the trade, and what that will mean to his relationship with Rita, is a question that alternately torments and intrigues him.
Hanley, director of operations for the Section that employed November, has apparently suffered a breakdown. Contrary to regulations, Hanley has been calling November over unsecured lines, babbling about "Nutcracker" and saying "there are no spies" over and over. Hanley's meaning is unclear (even to November), but Hanley's boss eavesdrops, pronounces Hanley a threat to national security, and sends him to an institution for wayward government employees where heavy medication and electric fences assure his docile silence. Hanley's loyal colleague, Lydia Neumann, seems to be the only person who takes his side.
Who is November and why do so many people want him dead? How do the Russians know so much about him? Has he been betrayed by his former employer? For the first half of the novel, all we know with certainty is that November used to be a spy, one of the last of a vanishing breed. The novel introduces us to several others in and on the periphery of the spy game, all of whom are strong characters.
A part (but only a part) of "there are no spies" refers to the replacement of human operatives with signals intelligence, satellite surveillance, and other forms of spying that do not involve sending humans into the field. One of the novel's themes is the argument that humans interacting with humans can learn critical information that satellites cannot, and can give meaning and context to electronically gathered information that would otherwise be lost.
The spare elegance of Granger's prose and the emotional truth he gives to his characters makes The November Man stand out in the world of espionage fiction. If the plot is not as twisty and complex as some other spy novels might produce, it has the virtue of being tight, credible, and meaningful.