Current Events Inspire Thrillers for the 21st Century

Where do the ideas for today's political thrillers come from? Gone are the cloak-and-dagger lives of agents fighting the Cold War: Two recent novels make suspenseful plots out of the people and places in contemporary headlines.

David Ignatius talks to Robert Siegel about his novel Body of Lies, which tells of a fictional CIA effort to infiltrate al-Qaida. And former spy James Church (a pseudonym) discusses his book A Corpse in Koryo, which follows North Korean Inspector O on the trail of international intrigue.

Authors' Favorite Thrillers

We asked authors David Ignatius and James Church which books and authors inspired their work.

David Ignatius: "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a perfect, small diamond. It established the gray color palette of the modern spy novel — the world where each side's professed ideals are compromised by the cynicism of its intelligence operations. It's set in Cold War Berlin — the divided city inhabited by these spies with divided hearts. George Smiley came to be seen as the quintessential John Le Carre character, but he's really too good — too lovably, bumblingly brilliant — to be true. It's Alec Leamas, the deeply disillusioned spy who wants to quit the game but can't, who defines Le Carre's fiction for me."

Ignatius also recommends Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American, which is set in Vietnam in the early 1950s. Ignatius says, "The Quiet American tells you everything you need to know about why we got into Iraq. Every defect of American culture and policy is in that book."

James Church: "How can you not like Raymond Chandler? The plots are OK, I suppose, and the descriptions of people, but best are the descriptions of place. When I want a vacation, I go with Chandler to Southern California; and absolutely every time the book is done, I'm annoyed. No matter how many times I read Chandler, I'm annoyed when I get to the end, because I don't want to leave that place he created, or captured, or maybe only reflected like an old mirror that still remembers what it has seen." When pressed, Church reluctantly will choose a favorite: The High Window. In Chandler's third novel starring Philip Marlowe, the private detective is on the case of the disappearance of rare gold coin.

Excerpt: 'Body of Lies'

Ed Hoffman, head of the CIA's Near East Division, is running underground operations out of the CIA. He and his colleague Sami Azhar are in the process of dressing up "Harry Meeker" — a corpse, to which the title Body of Lies refers — who will deceive and hopefully lure the enemy.

Finally, they added the pocket litter — the little bits of paper in the pockets and the wallet that would make Harry Meeker convincing or give him away. They had a charge slip from Afghan Alley, a restaurant in McLean frequented by CIA officers on their lunch break, charged to Meeker's Visa card. Hoffman added a second charge from the agency's favorite expense account restaurant, Kinkead's Colvin Run Tavern in Tyson's Corner — nearly $200 for dinner for two. Maybe Harry was getting serious about Denise. Ferris supplied the card of a jewelry store in Fairfax, with the handwritten notation, "2 carat — $5,000???" Harry was thinking about getting engaged, but worried about the money. Azhar suggested a receipt for dry cleaning at Park's Fabric Care in the McLean shopping center. People always forgot to pick up their laundry before going on a trip. And a receipt from the Exxon station on Route 123, just before the entrance to Headquarters. That was a nice touch. So was the coupon for a free car wash at a gas station in Alexandria, near Harry's apartment.

Hoffman wanted to give Harry an iPod, and they debated what sort of music their imaginary case officer would like. But then Azhar had a brainstorm — they shouldn't download music onto the iPod, but an Arabic language course. Whoever found the body would spend hours puzzling over the phrases — wondering if they were a secret code —and then realize it was just a language lab for spoken Arabic training. That was precisely what an ambitious, self-improving case officer would be carrying with him — so earnestly, annoyingly American. Hoffman had an old ticket stub from a Washington Redskins playoff game, and he put that in one of the jacket pockets, too.

They would add the finishing touches later: the documents Harry Meeker would be carrying to his contact in Al Qaeda; the photos and cables that would explode like virtual time bombs as they made their way up the network — the evidence that the enemy's cells had been turned and betrayed. What they were constructing with such care was a poison pill, one wrapped so believably and tantalizingly that the enemy would swallow it. The poison pill was Harry Meeker, and he could burst every node and capillary in the body of the enemy.

But first, they had to swallow the lie.

Excerpt: 'A Corpse in the Koryo'

James Church has an eye for detail. His book offers a rare Western glimpse inside North Korea's closed society. He says that many Westerners believe that living in the country is like "living on the moon." The reality is quite different, he says. In this excerpt, Inspector O has decided not to go to his office because there is a car parked outside that suggests bad things are happening there. Instead, he drives out into the countryside, where Church offers a glimpse of North Korea quite different from stereotypes.

The sun was shining full in my window when I woke with a start, past 8:00 a.m. My headache was gone, but I could tell it hadn't wandered far. The woman next door was complaining loudly that their flowers would all be dead by noon if her husband didn't go downstairs for some water, because the tap in their apartment wasn't working again. I should have been at the office by now. I yawned. Pak would cover for me if someone else needed the car, but I knew he was going to make me feel guilty when he found out how little I'd learned at the morgue. "Never mind, Inspector," he'd say, and turn his chair to the window. "We have plenty of clues already, mountains of clues. Who could possibly need an autopsy in a case like this? Glad you went to the morgue. Good use of the office vehicle. That almost makes up for the fact that you didn't bother to sign for it."

I was already late; Pak was only going to be unpleasant; I might as well get some more sleep. If the man next door had gone downstairs to get the water like his wife asked, that might have been possible, but the two of them started arguing about one thing, and one thing led to another. At least I could get some tea at work.

Driving to the office, I yawned and went over what the doctor had said the night before. "Ethnicity is not an identification." It wasn't much of an excuse, but it was worth a try with Pak. As I pulled into the gate at our compound, I saw a military jeep in one of the parking spots. I decided it was the wrong moment to put in an appearance, backed out, and turned onto the road leading toward the place where I'd been on photo-watch, waiting for the black car. I didn't know what I'd find when I got there; maybe driving over the same route would show me something I didn't know I had seen. I rolled down both front windows. If I drove fast enough, maybe the breeze would blow away my headache, which was back.

The day was bright and getting hot, but you could tell autumn was coming on. The sky was higher, bluer, without the flatness of summer. Farmers stood in small groups on the side of the road, staring at the fields, as if willing themselves to begin the work of harvesting the corn. The countryside was ripe. Back from the road, farmhouses sat like dwellings lost in a Central American jungle. Roofs were overgrown with squash vines; a wall of corn towered over the pathways that wound between the buildings. Here and there, a few women squatted on the edge of the fields, enjoying the clarity of the August morning.

I was focused on a couple of goats strolling across the road from the opposite shoulder when, out of nowhere, an oxcart lumbered onto the highway. In a split second it emerged from a dirt path in the field to my right, where it had been hidden by the corn. I slammed on the brakes, barely missed the goats and the back of the cart, and then began a skid that, after a few anxious moments, put me in a ditch about ten meters down the road. The oxcart continued plodding across the highway and disappeared into the cornfield on the other side. Two men ran over to the car. One of them, the older of the two, put his head in the open passenger window. "You all right? This is a damned unlucky stretch of road. People drive like crazy. We lose an ox a month. In July we lost three. We can't afford that."

I shoved the door open, climbed out, and made a quick check of the car. If I could get it out of the ditch, it would get me back to the office. Pak would murder me over the repairs. He wouldn't let us drive a car that was banged up, said it undermined our dignity. Worse, when it went to the repair shop, they would check the log, and he would have to explain why I had the car overnight and hadn't signed it in. Hell, I hadn't even signed it out.

Books Featured In This Story

Body of Lies

by David Ignatius

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A Corpse in the Koryo

by James Church

Hardcover, 280 pages | purchase

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