A review of Red Dress in Black and White by Elliot Ackerman. Alfred A. Knopf, 2020, 272 p., with reference to Liar’s Candle by August Thomas, Scribner, 2018, 310 p.
Because I am an American married to a Turk and have written about her country in memoirs and a novel, I tend to gravitate to novels by Americans that are set in that big, messy, volatile country that’s hard for outsiders to get their heads around. Even though it has been a liberal democracy almost a century, modernity still clashes with tradition, poverty mushrooms in the dark shadows of wealth, and as in many countries of late—sadly including mine—its politics have grown distinctly illiberal. As one of Elliot Ackerman’s characters cynically remarks, “There is no Turkey, only Turkish elites.”
Liar’s Candle, a novel by August Thomas, New York: Scribner, 2018, 310 p. IBSN 9781501172847
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.
For a big, strapping nation like the United States of America to be obsessively fixated on foreign-born evildoers is really quite strange, especially given that it has so many of its own. Other than 9/11, all terror attacks in the US since 2000 that weren’t thwarted or aborted involved firearms. Even if you include mass shootings that didn’t receive the Government’s Terrorism imprimatur, how many mass killings can you cite that were committed by undocumented aliens or foreign infiltrators?
Not that there aren’t foreigners who have bones to pick with America. According to Statista, nearly 200,000 Iraqi civilians lost their lives due to the US invasion, the ensuing resistance, and subsequent conflicts with ISIS invaders. From the start of the Iraq War in 2003 under GW Bush to his exit from office in 2009, 105,000 Iraqi civilians were killed, peaking at nearly 30,000 in 2006. During Obama’s first term, civilian deaths totaled 93,300, hovering at less than 5000 per year.
When ISIS stormed into Iraq in 2012, deaths escalated; 20,000 in 2014, remaining above 13,000 until steeply declining to 2500 in 2017. US Military deaths for those 15 years totaled 4541, peaking at 904 in 2007. Overall, 44 Iraqi noncombatants fell for every American soldier who died there. This is the so-called Price of Liberty, paid by innocent Iraqis, traumatized veterans, bereaved military families, and American taxpayers, at the further cost of eternal vigilance over everyone by our intelligence agencies.