The Prince of Bagram Prison
by Alex Carr
Published by Random House/Mortalis
304 pages, 2008
The Land of Unintended Consequences
Reviewed by David Thayer
Atmosphere is one of the hallmarks of the classic thriller, an aspect of suspense that is all too often sacrificed from the recipe for modern-day thrillers. Alex Carr -- a pseudonym used by Virginia novelist Jenny Siler (Flashback, Shot) -- wants to remind her readers that mystery can be found in the most ordinary places, where her characters suddenly find themselves prisoners of circumstance.
In the opening scene of The Prince of Bagram Prison, a Moroccan woman named Manar gives birth. The baby is removed and Manar is sent to a camp in the desert, having been judged guilty of joining an anti-government demonstration. Manar is a victim of the Years of Lead, a 1960s-1980s pogrom under Morocco’s King Hassan II that targeted democracy activists.
Now flash ahead to the present. A young Moroccan boy known as Jamal is working for American Intelligence in Madrid, Spain. Jamal is an orphan from Casablanca, who wants his handlers to believe he has information vital to American interests. In most ways, Jamal is an ordinary teenage boy, eager for a better life. However, he was formerly held at the U.S.-operated Bagram internment facility outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, and released only when he mentioned the name of a wanted terrorist. The boy puts himself in play until his American contact retires. A scandal is about to envelope Jamal in a deadly effort to cover up the torture of prisoners interred at Bagram.
CIA Director William Morrow fears the consequences of that torture scandal. Those with first-hand knowledge of the events at Bagram are deemed a threat. Jamal is sent running for his life.
He turned off the Calle Avenida Maria, and stopped short, scanning the block ahead of him. The butcher shop was dark, the metal security gate pulled across the windows and locked for the night. A figure moved in the doorway that led up to Jamal’s room, and for an instant the boy felt his heart seize up. Then the person stepped onto the sidewalk and Jamal realized with relief that the man was his neighbor, one of the dozen or so Somalis who occupied the cramped room across the landing from his.
Also a major player in Carr/Siler’s new thriller is Kat Caldwell. An army reservist, she’s a linguist trained in Arabic. Kat served as an interrogator in Afghanistan, first in Kandahar, than at Bagram Prison. While at Bagram, she developed a relationship with a member of Britain’s Special Boat Service (SBS), Colin Mitchell. Colin and his team ran interrogations of their own in the Special Forces camp inside Bagram. It was Colin’s team that snared Jamal in its net. The boy claimed to have seen women warriors in a city in western Afghanistan, members of an Iranian sect. This was either an intelligence coup or a complete fabrication, but either way it got Jamal on the U.S. payroll.
Three years after leaving Afghanistan, we find Kat summoned to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with Director Morrow. He orders her to take part in the pursuit of Jamal, the boy she’d known at Bagram. Kat is assigned to join a CIA agent, William Kurtz, in tracking the young man down.
In his desperation Jamal has contacted his former CIA handler, Harry Comfort. Comfort is now living in the Hawaiian Islands, exiled from his failed marriage in D.C. -- and a long way from the corridors of power. Harry has a lengthy history with Jamal’s new nemesis, Director Morrow. It seems that during the Vietnam War, Harry had an affair with Morrow’s wife, Susan:
Harry hates Morrow, and the feeling is mutual. While it is not always clear to the reader why Jamal must die, it’s apparent that the CIA director has the ways and means at his disposal to kill anyone he wants.
Eventually we come to understand that Jamal is the unfortunate Manar’s child, and that his flight from Madrid is leading him back to Casablanca -- to the grim orphanage where he grew up.
What he doesn’t know, is that Manar survived the pogrom, but only by living in Casablanca, exiled from her prominent family. It’s not a life she would have wished for herself, and we catch glimpses now and then of the pain it has brought to her.
In her haste to get to the pills, Manar knocked a box off the shelf, sending a cascade of photographs clattering to the floor. They were from the last few years before her imprisonment, snapshots of Manar with her friends from school, Yusuf and others from the student group. Manar bent down and swept them into the box, embarrassed by what they represented.
In many ways the relationship between Jamal and Manar, based on an instant of love between them, formed at the moment of birth, is the most important aspect of the novel. Of all the threads author Carr’s story follows, this one is the most vital, about two lost people moving closer to one another even as they approach the brink of disaster.
The suspense builds here as Kat, Jamal, Harry, and Manar all hurry, like pilgrims, toward the orphanage in Casablanca -- a place of decay and separation, but nonetheless Jamal’s squalid refuge. Each of them has a different motivation for making this trek, but all are compelled to risk their lives in order to prevent yet another murder in the name of expediency.
The Prince of Bagram Prison goes beyond the formulaic thriller to examine the life cycle of a failed ideal: that good intentions prevail, despite all evidence to the contrary. Like Harry Comfort in Vietnam’s central highlands, we feel safest in the shared delusion that schemes and plans trump the chaos unfolding before us. Carr/Siler knows better, yet she treats her errant characters with respect, making this novel all the more human and compelling. Harry may be an archetype, but his back-story succeeds in animating the man while at the same time exposing the flaws of the grand game into which Kat Caldwell is drawn. The past and present blend together in this yarn, scene by scene, connected less by action than by inevitability. This book captures Einstein’s observation that doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result is the height of foolishness.
That’s the way the great game is played. | May 2008
David Thayer is a Seattle freelance writer and author of the blog One More Bite of the Apple. He’s also a published poet, his work having appeared in an anthology as well as literary magazines. Thayer has recently completed a crime novel, the beginning of a series about cops in the New York Police Department's Intelligence Division.