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Cover image for American spy : a novel
American spy : a novel
First edition.
New York : Random House, [2018]
Physical Description:
292 pages ; 25 cm
1986, the heart of the Cold War. A young black woman working in an old boys' club, Marie Mitchell's FBI career has stalled out and her days are filled with monotonous paperwork. Given the opportunity to join a task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the charismatic revolutionary president of Burkina Faso whose Communist ideology has made him a target for American intervention, she says yes. In the year that follows Marie observes Sankara, seduces him-- and has a hand in the coup that will bring him down. But doing so will change everything she believes about what it means to be a spy, a lover, a sister, and a good American. -- adapted from jacket


Call Number
Wilkinson, L. American
Wilkinson, L.
Wilkinson, L.

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" American Spy updates the espionage thriller with blazing originality."-- Entertainment Weekly
"Gutsy . . . challenging boundaries is what brave fiction does."-- The New York Times
"So much fun . . . Like the best of John le Carré, it's extremely tough to put down."--NPR

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF 2019 (SO FAR) BY Time * Esquire * Vogue * Real Simple

What if your sense of duty required you to betray the man you love?

It's 1986, the heart of the Cold War, and Marie Mitchell is an intelligence officer with the FBI. She's brilliant, but she's also a young black woman working in an old boys' club. Her career has stalled out, she's overlooked for every high-profile squad, and her days are filled with monotonous paperwork. So when she's given the opportunity to join a shadowy task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the charismatic revolutionary president of Burkina Faso whose Communist ideology has made him a target for American intervention, she says yes. Yes, even though she secretly admires the work Sankara is doing for his country. Yes, even though she is still grieving the mysterious death of her sister, whose example led Marie to this career path in the first place. Yes, even though a furious part of her suspects she's being offered the job because of her appearance and not her talent.

In the year that follows, Marie will observe Sankara, seduce him, and ultimately have a hand in the coup that will bring him down. But doing so will change everything she believes about what it means to be a spy, a lover, a sister, and a good American.

Inspired by true events--Thomas Sankara is known as "Africa's Che Guevara"-- American Spy knits together a gripping spy thriller, a heartbreaking family drama, and a passionate romance. This is a face of the Cold War you've never seen before, and it introduces a powerful new literary voice.

Praise for American Spy

"Inspired by real events, this espionage thriller ticks all the right boxes, delivering a sexually charged interrogation of both politics and race." -- Esquire

"Echoing the stoic cynicism of Hurston and Ellison, and the verve of Conan Doyle, American Spy lays our complicities--political, racial, and sexual--bare. Packed with unforgettable characters, it's a stunning book, timely as it is timeless." --Paul Beatty, Man Booker Prizewinning author of The Sellout

Author Notes

Lauren Wilkinson earned an MFA in fiction and literary translation from Columbia University, and has taught writing at Columbia and the Fashion Institute of Technology. She was a 2013 Center for Fiction Emerging Writers Fellow, and has also received support from the MacDowell Colony and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Wilkinson grew up in New York and lives on the Lower East Side. This is her first novel.

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

Wilkinson's unflinching, incendiary debut combines the espionage novels of John le CarrAc with the racial complexity of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Marie Mitchell, the daughter of a Harlem-born cop and a Martinican mother, is an operative with the FBI in the mid-'80s peak of the Cold War. Marie is languishing in the bureaucratic doldrums of the agency, a black woman stultified by institutional prejudice relegated to running snitches associated with Pan-African movements with Communist links. All this changes when she is tapped by the CIA to insinuate herself with Thomas Sankara, the charismatic new leader of Burkina Faso, in a concerted effort to destabilize his fledgling government and sway them toward U.S. interests. Now the key player in a honeypot scheme to entrap Sankara, Marie finds herself questioning her loyalties as she edges closer to both Sankara and the insidious intentions of her handlers abroad. In the bargain, she also hopes to learn the circumstances surrounding the mysterious death of her elder sister, Helene, whose tragically short career in the intelligence community preceded Marie's own. Written as a confession addressed to her twin sons following an assassination attempt on her life, the novel is a thrilling, razor-sharp examination of race, nationalism, and U.S. foreign policy that is certain to make Wilkinson's name as one of the most engaging and perceptive young writers working today. Marie is a brilliant narrator who is forthright, direct, and impervious to deception-traits that endow the story with an honesty that is as refreshing as it is revelatory. This urgent and adventurous novel will delight fans of literary fiction and spy novels alike. Agent: Kristina Moore, Wylie Agency. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Review

The bitter education of an African-American intelligence agent is framed against the background of a real-life coup d'tat three decades ago in Burkina Faso.It's 1987, and Marie Mitchell has hit the wall as an FBI agent. She's patronized and marginalized by her boss, who relegates her to little more than recruiting informants (or "snitches," as she derisively calls them) and filing "oppressive amounts of paperwork." This is not how this idealistic (but hardly nave) daughter of an NYPD officer hoped her life would turn out back when she and her sister, Helene, dreamed of becoming secret agents when they grew up. At this low point of her professional life, Marie is recruited by Ed Ross, a smooth-talking CIA official, to take part in a covert operation to undermine the regime of Burkina Faso's magnetic young president, Thomas Sankara, a Marxist influenced by the example of the martyred revolutionary Che Guevara. From the beginning of her assignment, Marie is both wary of the agency's reasons for taking down Sankara and skeptical toward Sankara's leftist politics, though the closer she gets to Sankara, the less inclined she is to dismiss his efforts to improve his nation's welfare. Nevertheless, Marie has another, more personal motive for accepting the assignment: the agent-in-charge, Daniel Slater, was both a colleague and lover of her sister, who fulfilled her ambition to become a spy but died in a car accident whose circumstances remain a mystery to Marie and her family. The more embedded Marie gets in her assignment, the less certain she is of what that assignment entails and of who, or what, she's really working for. Falling in love with her targetSankara, who in real life was violently overthrown that same yearis yet another complication that further loosens Marie's professional resolve. There are many tangled strands to unravel here for Marie, the reader, and first-time novelist Wilkinson, who nonetheless navigates the psychic and physical terrain of this tale of divided loyalties with the poise of such classic masters as Eric Ambler and Graham Greene spiked with late-20th-century black American intellectual history.There's an honorable, unsung tradition of African-American novelists using the counterspy genre as a metaphor for what W.E.B. Du Bois called "double consciousness," and Wilkinson's book is a noteworthy contribution. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* As Wilkinson's first novel begins, in 1992, Marie flees her Connecticut home with her four-year-old twin sons after narrowly escaping a murderous intruder. The assailant wasn't altogether unexpected, and her sons, Marie also expects, will want to know more someday. When they reach safety, she begins writing her story for the boys to read when they're older, starting with her Cold War girlhood in Queens with a policeman father and a steely older sister she'd follow into government work. Underrecognized while working for the FBI in 1986, Marie accepts a CIA assignment to get close to Burkina Faso president Thomas Sankara. Operating under an alias in Burkina Faso's capital, Marie is struck by how in New York she always felt her blackness preceded her Americanness, but in Africa she is an American a foreigner first. Brilliant Marie knows that her mission's ostensible goal of ensuring democracy can't be its only one and finds it hard to believe that well-intentioned Thomas is a dangerous dictator. Wilkinson works within the true history of Burkina Faso, blending high-stakes political drama and Marie's contemplation of the sister she lost and what her own choices will mean for her sons. Appealing in its insightful characterizations, well-plotted action, and rich settings, this should find a large audience.--Annie Bostrom Copyright 2019 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

FIRST: Sandra Day O'Connor, by Evan Thomas. (Random House, $32.) O'Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court, was as practical, fearless and independent-minded off the bench as she was on it; in this intimate and admiring portrait, Thomas, a veteran journalist and biographer, expertly navigates both her pathbreaking career and fulfilling domestic life. THE CHIEF: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts, by Joan Biskupic. (Basic, $32.) This assiduously reported, briskly written biography offers new behind-the-scenes details on John Roberts's life and career, but shows just how hard it is to figure out who the chief justice really is or what he stands for. THE PARADE, by Dave Eggers. (Knopf, $25.95.) In Eggers's tense parable of a novel, his eighth, two unnamed men are contracted by a road-building company to lay down a highway in a war-torn foreign country in time for a government parade. THE MASTERMIND: Drugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal., by Evan Ratliff. (Random House, $28.) Ratliff's page-turning investigation explores how Paul Le Roux transformed himself from a nerdy kid with a talent for encryption into the boss of an international drug cartel. AMERICAN SPY, by Lauren Wilkinson. (Random House, $27.) This gutsy debut thriller - about a black female F.B.I. agent haunted by an old case - delivers plenty of action while addressing thought-provoking issues of identity, belonging and moral compromise. "Running informants was about cultivating their trust," the heroine says. "I found it worked best to lie frequently." ZORA AND LANGSTON: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal, by Yuval Taylor. (Norton, $27.95.) This engaging, overdue study of the famous yet underdiscussed friendship and collaboration between Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes traces one of the most consequential relationships in American literature. SURVIVAL MATH: Notes on an All-American Family, by Mitchell S. Jackson. (Scribner, $26.) Jackson tells the story of his family in Portland, Ore., and of the men in particular - offering social context for their decisions, good and bad. He relates the often sordid tales of addiction and neglect with radical love and honesty. SPIES OF NO COUNTRY: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel, by Matti Friedman. (Algonquin, $26.95.) In the early days of the Israeli state, a secret unit of Jewish spies posed as Arabs, living the tension and drama of Israel's relationship with its neighbors. ANOTHER, written and illustrated by Christian Robinson. (Atheneum, $17.99; ages 3 to 8.) This wordless wonder is a puzzle of a story about a girl and her cat who enter a mirror world, where children and creatures meet their look-alike opposites. The full reviews of these and other recent books are on the web: nytimes.com/books

Library Journal Review

DEBUT Written in the form of a lengthy missive from a mother to her young sons, this intriguing first novel blends literary fiction with a Cold War-era spy story. When FBI special agent Marie is forced to flee the country with her children, she begins writing down her experiences as an African American female spy during the 1980s, when she was assigned to establish intimacy with Thomas Sankara, the hugely popular Burkina Faso president. Marie's account draws out the conflict between her government's directives and her own intense attraction to the charismatic Marxist leader. Wilkinson successfully makes events in Marie's past suspenseful, revealing details that seem natural rather than contrived. This story of espionage, told from the perspective of a woman of color, doesn't gloss over how family and personal relationships, as well as institutional racism and chauvinism, complicate a career in secret intelligence, raising questions about U.S. involvement in developing countries and the obstacles faced by women and minorities in law enforcement. VERDICT Should be a popular book club selection. [See Prepub Alert, 8/6/18.]-Laurie ­Cavanaugh, Thayer P.L., Braintree, MA © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.