Good fiction doesn’t seem made up. It seems real. “Red Cell” is an intriguing espionage novel, but the Red Cell within the CIA is real enough. The author, Mark Henshaw, spent three years in the Red Cell, which consists of a contingent of experts charged with thinking up unconventional ideas and plans — “the most dangerous ideas in the world” — even if doing so puts them at odds with their peers elsewhere in the agency.
And although the novel had to be vetted for national security purposes, Henshaw, a 13-year veteran of the CIA with more than his share of honors, has written a tale that brings readers into credible discussions and plausible scenarios.
The novel’s protagonist is Kyra Stryker; she’s young, brash, talented and honorable. She is assigned to the Red Cell after taking the fall for an operation that went bad in Venezuela. She works with Jonathan Burke, who’s brilliant, arrogant and takes a little getting used to.
Meanwhile, halfway across the world, Taiwan arrests a handful of Chinese spies, igniting a new round of tension between the mainland and the island, which thinks of itself as independent despite China’s longtime claim on it. China launches a limited invasion, in part to teach the island a lesson and in part because it has larger plans. What Chinese troops accomplish is less significant than mysterious explosions that destroy Taiwan’s chief power plant and a Taiwanese Kidd class destroyer — in port— that Taiwan had acquired from the United States. The U.S., which pursues something of a schizophrenic policy pertaining to China and Taiwan, is drawn immediately into this fracas. American aircraft carrier groups, never distant, are dispatched to show the colors.
With tension mounting, Pioneer, a U.S. asset well placed in China’s intelligence community, is compromised, and it becomes Kyra’s mission to “exfiltrate” him. Pioneer’s information, combined with a raft of other evidence, give rise to the suspicion that China may have developed a stealth fighter that’s worthy of the name, a jet clearly superior to its previous efforts.
If so — if Chinese aircraft could finally threaten U.S. carriers — it could alter the balance of power on the Pacific Rim.
Kyra and Jonathan are dispatched to the carrier USS Ronald Reagan to brief its commander of what they’ve learned and to further outline a scenario in which China could use the present tension with Taiwan to damage or sink the USS Ronald Reagan.
What becomes known as the Battle of Taiwan Strait begins when one of the Chinese MiGs, harassing U.S reconnaissance aircraft over international waters, first fires at and then clips the wings of the U.S. plane, sending both aircraft into the sea. China’s pilots are no match for Americans in conventional fighters, and U.S. stealth fighters give the U.S. the overwhelming advantage… until China’s stealth fighter joins the battle.
“Red Cell” is a good espionage-combat story that almost certainly involves some of the scenarios contemplated both by U.S. intelligence agencies and the U.S. military. The fact that the author has been involved in CIA briefings and analysis lends credence to plot. And he knows to include the diplomatic wrangling involving not just U.S. Embassy personnel in Beijing but also the leaders of the United States, China and Taiwan.
In “Red Cell,” wider war is averted, and tensions revert to their more manageable levels between two powerful countries that compete on multiple economic and political fronts and conduct trillions of dollars of business with each other. Not quite enemies, the two are hardly friends. Such coexistence isn’t ideal, but it is preferable to at least some of the alternatives portrayed in this book.
Walt Braun is the editorial page editor for the Mercury.