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Book Review: The “Flag Girl” Stumbles but Never Flags

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Liar’s Candle, a novel by August Thomas, New York: Scribner, 2018, 310 p. IBSN 9781501172847

 

Liar’s Candle, a novel by August Thomas

When I learned of this book late last year, it struck a chord. It was the first recent political thriller I had encountered set in Turkey, as is part of one I published about six months later. And so, to compare notes, I gave it a read and found that our books are different animals with kindred spirits. Here is my book report.

The title of August Thomas’s debut international thriller comes from a Turkish proverb, “A liar’s candle burns only until dark,” an appropriate motto for the full helping of duplicity that Thomas serves up. This fast-moving tale whips the reader between locales in Turkey and the US, plus a brief, tense incursion into northern Syria. Changes of scene are datelined, dispatch-style, helping to keep one oriented as the action shifts from one exotic setting to another, for example the presidential palace in Ankara, a hotel in Istanbul, a city in far-eastern Turkey, a monastery in Syria, and even into ancient cave dwellings. Thomas also regularly transports us across the Atlantic to an even more inaccessible location, CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. There we find hard-boiled uber-spy Christina Ekdahl remotely rattling the cages of agents and diplomats working in Turkey in the service of American national security and her own self-serving designs.

But it is Penny Kessler, a 21-year-old college student from Michigan working as an intern in the US Embassy in Ankara, who is our heroine. She’s fortunate to have escaped with serious injuries from a terrorist bomb that killed hundreds of staff and distinguished guests at a Fourth of July fête in the embassy’s garden. But she’s given no time to recover from her wounds. After being grilled by US diplomats she’s forcibly abducted from her hospital bed by Turkish President Palamut’s agents to his daughter Melek’s chambers in the sprawling presidential palace. All of them believe that Penny knows a lot more about the bombing than she herself does, and things only get worse for her from there.

After her first hair-raising escape—from the palace via a refuse chute wearing only a pink bathrobe—she is tracked down by rookie CIA agent Connor who’s been detailed to find out what she knows. They don’t get very far before their car and its Turkish driver are consumed by a fireball as they gape from a dozen feet away. Connor thinks the terrorist group Hashashin (named for an order of medieval Persian assassins and a stand-in for Isis) has hacked his communications with Langley, and it takes some time for Penny to realize and then to persuade him that he’s been set up all along.

They are on the trail of Penny’s friend and co-worker Zach, who disappeared after the embassy bomb blast along with a Kurdish partisan whom he’d gotten Penny to add to the guest list, against protocol. Everybody but Penny suspects Zach is implicated. Penny becomes determined to find him and clear his name. Connor wants to find him too, but for interrogation. They come to suspect that Hashashin militants are holding Zach prisoner in a monastery they seized just across the Syrian border from the city of Mardin in eastern Turkey and make their way to it, totally unprepared. Their subsequent captivity and its lead-up are handled well, but their dramatic getaway defies belief. And throughout their hapless travels, the all-seeing CIA and MIT (its Turkish equivalent) are always just one (or less) step behind their high-value targets, if you can believe it.

In the days following the embassy bombing, a photo of Penny’s blood-splattered visage dragging a huge American flag (a prize she’d just won for writing a patriotic essay) out from the rubble before she collapsed and was hospitalized was plastered on screens and newspapers worldwide. It became an icon of American resolve, but her unsolicited fame as the “Flag Girl” only made Penny more recognizable as she and Connor crisscross Turkey dodging pursuers deployed by both governments. In the end, Penny, whom the Turks claimed had died in hospital, shows up to disclose damning evidence of government crimes and she, Connor, Zach, and Christina meet their commensurate fates.

Throughout Liar’s Candle, we find the terse sentences, snappy dialog, and lame jokes typical of its genre. Penny literally leaps for her life on at least four occasions and escapes assassination equally often, perhaps too often for a young woman whom everyone believed was already dead. Plotting is tight, but some plotlines—such as the machinations involving the CIA, State Department, President Palamut and his daughter Melek, and the Hashashin—are murky, even in the end. Others—foremost the escape from the Syrian monastery—come across as missions improbable.

The improbabilities notwithstanding, Thomas’s prose is generally vivid, spiced with Turkish words and phrases, Turkish food, and Turkish politics. The politics are especially merciless; from CIA inner sanctums to diplomatic outposts, to Turkey’s corridors of power, powerful figures act as despicably as one might expect in any political thriller. And as thrillers go—especially for a first novel—this one does well to keep up the tension and ratchet up the stakes. The scenes in which Penny is under duress are tightly scripted and nicely elicit inner states. Sometimes, though, Penny’s quips and comebacks seem a bit too casually self-assured for the waif she is made out to be.

Thomas speaks Turkish and attended university in Istanbul as a Fulbright Scholar. That intimate familiarity has enabled her to paint memorable pictures of Turkish landscapes, towns, establishments, and mores. My life partner is a Turk, and based on visits with her family and trips around their country, Thomas’s take on it is an excellent guidebook.

Her take on Turkish President Palamut, a megalomaniac authoritarian, is especially caustic. He is obviously drawn as a stand-in for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, complete with high-level corruption, Islamification of public life, clandestine backing of terrorists, brutal repression of critics, and a sumptuous lifestyle. In my 2018 thriller Turkey Shoot, he is named Pasha and has the same attributes. But my novel’s cast, unlike that of Liar’s Candle, features no government agents (rogue or otherwise), cutthroat adversaries, ruthless officials, or even much hot pursuit, only a haphazard collection of radical ex-pats with little wherewithal, doggedly intent on eliminating an autocratic leader.

Now, under Erdoğan’s dictatorial rule, free expression has become heavily censored in Turkey. So, even though my novel hasn’t been translated into Turkish, I would not be surprised to find myself on a watch list or be denied entry to Turkey. I wonder if August Thomas considered that eventuality when she took her quasi-fictional plunge into the waters of Turkish politics.

If you focus on Penny’s many peripatetic predicaments and farfetched salvations, Liar’s Candle feels a bit over the top. But its political verisimilitude, deft characterization, and colorful scenery make it well worth going along for the teeth-clenching ride.

A previous version of this review was posted at goodreads.com.

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