It’s hard to tell whether credit for “Blowback,” which is an entertaining spy novel, should go to Valerie Plame or Sarah Lovett. Plame was the career CIA agent, and the protagonist not only is a woman but also has a name that calls Plame’s to mind - Vanessa Pierson. Plame, however, is still proving herself as a writer, while co-author Sarah Lovett has five suspense novels to her credit.
With Vanessa Pierson, the authors have drawn a character who is attractive - that’s important in these novels - and quite capable. She’s also headstrong, has a tendency to follow her instincts instead of orders, and is having an affair with a fellow agent, which is taboo.
As the story opens, she’s in Vienna preparing to meet an important asset who has information about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Unfortunately, shortly after they rendezvous, a sniper armed with a high-powered rifle shoots her asset. Though the asset didn’t have time to give her all the information she seeks, he provided clues to it. This the second asset Pierson lost. Making matter worse for her is that seconds before she met with the asset, she was given orders to abort the meeting and disappear.
Her judgment is called into question and she is on the verge of being removed from the larger mission, which is to track down a mysterious nuclear arms dealer known only as Bhoot, also called simply “the ghost” because his identity and whereabouts are unknown.
Pierson goes to Turkey to meet the dead asset’s widow, who, with her child, had a harrowing escape from Iran’s security dragnet. Vanessa then is assigned to Cyprus, where she becomes the handler for someone who’s considered less important, a Russian financier. Little does she know that the sniper who killed her asset in Vienna has been assigned to kill the Russian. He’s successful, having followed the Russian to an old castle, where the Russian was to meet Vanessa.
Vanessa gets to the rendezvous site too late to save the Russian, but takes from him documents he intended to pass to her. She also is able to wound the sniper.
Her personal mission escalates from tracking down Bhoot to finding out who this assassin is and doing away with him as well.
The Russian’s information is invaluable, as are the clues from the asset killed in Vienna. The CIA learns that the assassin is headed to London, and agents initially think his target is a member of Parliament who is seeing the woman at the top of British intelligence. Vanessa, however, concludes from the dead Russian’s information that the assassin’s target is the head of British intelligence, and her actions save the woman’s life.
Eventually, the CIA gathers enough information to plan a commando raid on an Iranian nuclear facility, and Vanessa hopes they’ll also capture or kill the elusive Bhoot, who drones indicate is on his way to the facility. Things don’t go as drawn up however. Although Iran’s nuclear ambitions suffer a setback, so do those who planned the secret mission.
Plame became internationally known a decade ago when columnist Robert Novak effectively outed her secret cover and ended her CIA career. She inadvertently became embroiled in a scandal involving the Bush administration and her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson.
As espionage writers go, Plame and Lovett show promise. Plame’s knowledge of tradecraft shows through. A sequel seems inevitable because Vanessa because not only is she looking for Bhoot, but she learns that Bhoot is now looking for her. “Blowback” is a good story, and there’s reason to believe these authors’ next collaboration will be even better.
Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial page editor.