A Spy Thriller From Stephen Carter: 'Jericho's Fall'

Stephen Carter has a new thriller called Jericho's Fall. Linda Wertheimer talks to him about the basis for his tale of spies, official secrecy and financial fraud. The story centers on a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and his leverage against the other players in his shadowy world. This is Carter's fourth novel but his first spy thriller.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Stephen Carter has written a new novel. And this one is not set in the world of black intellectuals, college professors, lawyers and judges - as his first three thrillers are. This book is called "Jericho's Fall." Jericho, of the title, is the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, the clandestine and famously white American intelligence establishment. He is disgraced, ill and isolated in his mountain retreat. He summons a young woman, a former lover and former student, to help him, to save him and possibly his secrets, and his leverage over his enemies.

We watch what happens through the eyes of that young woman, Rebecca Difford(ph), who is struggling with the twists and turns of a plot where she is almost the only character who is what she seems to be. I asked Carter if the stream of recent news reports about CIA inspired him to create this kind of master spy, Jericho.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEPHEN CARTER (Author, "Jericho's Fall"): Central Intelligence does seem to be in a mess but it's often been in a mess. The CIA has had trouble almost as long you've had a CIA, which is 60 years now. But actually, you know, I've written other thrillers. And at the heart of each of my thrillers is someone of enormous power who is deeply, deeply flawed. And I think it was just time to give the spies a chance. And so I conceived this character, Jericho Ainsley, former director of Central Intelligence, former Defense secretary, former Wall Street titan.

WERTHEIMER: You call him former everything.

Mr. CARTER: Former everything. He is part of that establishment. There's a national security establishment. Whoever is in the White House, these people are always moving and out of the same jobs. And the question that really presented itself to me is - suppose, if he began to lose his mind, what would then happen? That's what I really thought about. Because that's been a problem over the years. We've had a number of senior officials in American intelligence who have had mental breakdowns of one kind or another. And so I wanted to bring one of those to fiction.

WERTHEIMER: There's a portion in the book where you describe this man - Jericho Ainsley, the former everything, and how he sees himself.

Mr. CARTER: This is a conversation that takes place in his bedroom. He is quite ill. And "Don Giovanni," his favorite opera, is playing in the background as he and his former lover, Beck, have a conversation. And he begins: Sean thinks I'm a monster. Sean is his son. Sean thinks I'm a monster. Did you know that? So does cousin Maggie, for that matter. The junior senator from Vermont. The two of them think people who do what I do, what I did, are the death of our nation. They think we'd be better off without our spies. Fancy that, the American idea destroyed by Jericho Ainsley.

He peered at her over the rim of his glasses, put on the donnishness she had once adored. How do you stand on that one, actually? Am I a monster? No, she said, too shortly, not liking herself in this mood and glad it was he who had broken the brief silence. She remembered that "Don Giovanni" was a tale of passion, betrayal and murder. I am, though, a monster. He seemed inordinately pleased. I lived a monster. I'll die a monster. America needs monsters. We're the Moorlocks. We stay underground, but we keep the machinery working. The rest of you get to pretend we don't exist.

WERTHEIMER: You think that's true?

Mr. CARTER: Yes, I think there is some truth to that - that is, there's a lot of things that are done in our name that we wouldn't like if we knew about, but I think we often don't want to know. So you know, you read a story in the paper - a Predator drone has taken out a school in Afghanistan because they were hoping to get this one guy who's in there. And sometimes they get him and sometimes they don't. And people say, it's too bad about those kids and then they turn the page, and they go on to something else. I think we can be pretty blasé about it, too blasé if it doesn't affect us directly or if we're not forced to confront what's often being done in our name.

WERTHEIMER: Did you have anybody in mind? I mean, did you base him on somebody? He seems to me to be a kind of like - a few parts of Dick Cheney, maybe some parts of the - one of the most amazing figures in CIA history, James Jesus Angleton.

Mr. CARTER: If there was inspiration for Jericho Ainsley, the closest to the inspiration is surely James Angleton, who ran counterintelligence for many, many years and for most of that time, was not only alcoholic but increasingly paranoid - so paranoid, in fact, that he began to suspect almost everyone above him in the chain of command of being a Soviet agent. My thought was, suppose someone even more powerful, the director, began to have problems. And in my fictional vision, he's eased out. He goes to Princeton for a supposed sabbatical, or suddenly throws away his career and his marriage as well, falling in love with a younger woman as well.

WERTHEIMER: A much, much younger woman. And she is the heroine; Rebecca Difford is her name. Now, in most of your books, you set up this sort of morality situation. I mean, she is sort of the good angel, and Jericho Ainsley is the evil creature. But she is the clearest character in the book. I mean, she clearly is a good person.

Mr. CARTER: She is the clearest character in the book. Writing her was a lot of fun. I should drop, as it were, a little footnote and say, I never identify her race in the book. My novels have been heavily set in what my characters tend to call the darker nation. But in this novel, I decided to just a leave in abeyance what her race was. People can read it whatever they want. My view is in the age of Obama, what difference does it make what the race of the character is? And I hope it's just a good story.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that espionage lends itself to morality tales?

Mr. CARTER: Espionage, in a way, is a great morality tale - that is, so much of life is deciding whether the ends justify the means. Espionage is a means; it's not an end. And deciding how to use it is an important moral question. The larger moral questions I'm trying to tackle in the story are questions about the nature of love: what we do for love and what love, indeed, consists of. And some of the characters talk about that, especially toward the end of the - of the story. I guess you could ask the question whether love and being a spy mix. After all, in the clandestine services, they have a very, very high divorce rate, and there may be reasons for that.

WERTHEIMER: Stephen Carter, thank you very much.

Mr. CARTER: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Stephen Carter's new book is called "Jericho's Fall."

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