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Friday
May052017

The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich

Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on April 18, 2017

“Evil does not betray you” is the theme of The Good Assassin. Like all good spy novels, betrayal is at the novel’s heart. Betrayals pop up at regular intervals as the story moves forward, taking many forms.

The Good Assassin takes place five years after An Honorable Man. George Mueller, now retired from the CIA, is sent to Cuba in 1958 as an “outsider” to take a reading on Toby Graham, a CIA agent with whom Mueller is acquainted. It is feared that Graham might be unduly sympathetic to Castro’s revolution (as opposed to the Batista dictatorship that the CIA clandestinely supports), and that Graham might be funneling weapons provided by the CIA to Castro rather than Batista.

Mueller is met and instantly disliked by the FBI’s man in Havana, Frank Pryce. He’s also disliked by Graham, with whom he has a dark history that includes a woman who is also a key character.

Cuba in 1958 is not a safe place to be unless you’re Ernest Hemmingway. The story places Mueller in jeopardy from Castro’s rebels and Batista’s troops, but danger may also be lurking closer to home. Mueller has plenty of things to worry about in this relatively brief but captivating story.

Is Graham a traitor? Or is he simply a realist who follows orders but complains about the hypocrites who issue them? Graham is clearly tired of “the persistent contemplation of evil,” an occupational hazard that “weakens the soul.” If he is a traitor, what should be his fate? In the game of espionage, the novel suggests, it is impossible to separate the white hats and the black hats. There are only shades of gray. There are no innocents, no souls untainted by corruption.

Paul Vidich handles those themes adeptly, as he did in An Honorable Man. The apparent simplicity of the story masks its depth. The novel ends in ambiguity, and while that’s how most things end, readers who like stories to wrap up neatly might be affronted by the lack of clear answers. I think the ending fits the story and its themes.

I am drawn to spy fiction in part because of the moral questions that characters so often confront, at least when the themes are deeper than “patriotic Americans kill bad people.” Vidich confronts moral issue in a thoughtful way. The Good Assassin is not as surprising as An Honorable Man, but Mueller continues to be a surprising, morally complex character.

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