"Sleeper Spy," by William Safire. New York: Random House. 451 pages. $24 Where James Bond led the way, almost every spy thriller has followed: At the center of every spy story is the spy, the man whom every woman wants and all men envy, an ultimate secret agent man, whose cool good looks, suave manner, superbly tailored dinner jacket, swift cars and gorgeous women put the escape in escapist fiction.
Trust William Safire to pull-off the impossible: to pen a palpitating spy novel, the hero of which is not a spy at all, but a journalist and a nasty, frumpy old fellow at that.
Irving Fein is perhaps the world's greatest reporter, a guy who won a Pulitzer before he was 30 for a newspaper series on terrorists. He is also lonely, awkward, disheveled, suspicious, manipulative and deliberately unpleasant, a guy who elevates "insult and innuendo and irritation into a knack for control."
And cheap, don't forget cheap. Put it this way: Irving Fein is the sort of 48-year-old man who would manufacture a fake ID to get the senior citizen fare on the Delta shuttle. A guy who likes to get junk mail because "he hated to look in his mailbox and find it empty."
Moreover, he can't even get a decent advance. It is Irving's sad fate to have more reputation than fame: "Editors, younger and more remotely British every year, were slower to return his calls."
What saves him is his absolute devotion to, if not the truth, then its close cousin, the story: "'Incorruptible' is a good description of Irving Fein," notes Ace, his agent, "Occasionally deceivable, often disagreeable, but never corruptible."
The plot of "Sleeper Spy" revolves around a fevered search for the title character, a "sleeper" planted in America 20 years ago, recently activated, whose mission is to accumulate a $100 billion fortune for Russia. But which Russia? His handler is dead, no one in the current, reformed KGB or the underground collection of gangster, capitalist and ex-communists (who believe themselves the true heirs of the sleeper's fortune), know who the sleeper is or how to put their hands on the money. So the race is on among G-men and criminals, ours and theirs, plus one indomitable reporter and his team to pierce the multi-layered veils of deception to uncover the hard truth behind multiple masks.
In the end, Safire scores a knockout with this vastly entertaining novel, which is also a delightful (for those of us who are readers and writers) pat on his own back, a justification of journalism, a paean to print.
The digs at TV news are designed to warm a journalist's heart: Fein's partner, a rising TV news celebrity selected for her ability to draw a big advance, is "Dominant but not domineering; in firm control of herself and of her topic, whether she knew the subject or not."
But the real tension is between the spies and the journalist. Both are, as Fein puts it, in the "meaning-of-information" business, with this difference: "[T]he spooks tell the government secretly what a little of it means, while the press tells the people publicly what it all means . . . At the heart of secrecy is mass manipulation, but at the heart of publicity is democratic dealing."
Which makes spying a "grubby" profession, reporting a "noble one," and Safire's "Sleeper Spy" a wide-awake ripping good readers' read.
Maggie Gallagher writes a syndicated column for Universal Press. Her books include "Enemies of Eros: How the Sexual Revolution is Killing Family, Marriage, Sex and What We Can Do About It."