Book Review : James Rayburn - The Truth Itself (2017)
Long-time readers of this site are familiar with the bleak and ultraviolent political thrillers of South African author Roger Smith. His novels Dust Devils and Capture have made my year-end list before and my affection for Smith's fuck-you-I-dare-you-to-keep-reading violent scenes is well documented. He wrote The Truth Itself under the pen name of James Rayburn because....* drum rolls *...it's an espionage novel, which is quite a departure from his usual style. It's something he's done before and he's always been super honest about it. I thought the exercise was intriguing because while Roger Smith is always compelling, there's only so many ways of telling South Africa's fucked up, you know? Unsurprisingly, I've enjoyed The Truth Itself quite a lot and thought it had a couple interesting things to say about individualism, patriotism and espionage novels in general.
The Truth Itself begins in Vermont where two young men walk in an elementary school armed with assault weapons and start opening fire. Kate Swift, CIA whistleblower living under the assumed identity of Holly Brenner, takes out the gunmen and disappears with her daughter Suzie. She believes the gunmen were sent by her old agency nemesis Lucien Benway and travels to Berlin to seek her retired mentor Philip Danvers and, ultimately, legendary CIA "fixer" Harry Hook's help to disappear a second time. Hook went dark several years prior after a hostage crisis fiasco and has been battling his demon since. When the Swift-Benway fiasco resurfaces, everyone is swept into old workplace bullshit that cost lives and that will end up costing many more. There's no stopped a humiliated Lucien Benway looking to settle the score.
This is not a geopolitical espionage thriller featuring a nefarious foreign power. The Truth Itself is a post-9/11 thriller if you will, which are more about spies themselves that spying. Homeland is another example of post-9/11 espionage fiction and there's an obvious connection between both: they explore the idea that spies, while being ruthless killing machines, are flawed human beings like you and I and that working for the CIA is a shitty, high-stress job that eventually wears you down, kills your dream and turns you into an existential mess. The plot of The Truth Itself basically originates from a clash of egos between true patriot Kate Swift and ruthless, sociopathic Lucien Benway. Traditional espionage thrillers present this patriotic facade that pits the U.S against an evil-minded political enemy. Whoever strays from the program always ends up being a traitor. This is not the case here. Technically Kate Swift is the traitor for blowing the whistle on CIA activities and Benway is just an overambitious government employee who got caught red handed at doing horrible shit. I guess you could say it's a deconstruction of traditional spy novels.
That leads me to what I liked most about The Truth Itself: it explores the question of patriotism from a very contemporary angle. This isn't particularly surprising for long-time readers of Roger Smith such as myself because he's always been extremely critical of every forms of nationalism *. Kate Swift and Lucien Benway symbolize the two faces of patriotism: selfless sacrifice for the greater good (and perhaps an untamed taste for adventure too) and reckless ambition hiding in government agencies and masquerading as selflessness. Benway was particularly convincing as the demented power broker and perhaps the more typically Smith-ian character in the novel. I particularly enjoyed his dysfunctional relationship to his much younger wife Nadja, who he saved during the Bosnian War. Part of the fun of reading The Truth Itself was gauging the level of self-interest in Benway's actions and it was always more complicated when dealing with his wife.
Sure, The Truth Itself doesn't avoid certain issues most thrillers suffer from. The layers of storylines always have to unfold in a particular way, so it always becomes somewhat predictable after a while and it was especially the case with Kate Swift, who was rather stereotypical by design (she was the caring, patriotic one). I've enjoyed the damned thing anyway because I didn't expected some boundary-challenging experimental fiction or anything. The leap from politically-charged thrillers to espionage by Roger Smith was enough of a change for me and it was a successful one on top of that. 9/11 changed the world in many respects and one thing it did is change the way espionage novels are written. We're still caught into the absolute global shitstorm it created but thanks to Smith, a.k.a James Rayburn, we're starting to gain historical perspective on the situation.
* So am I, by the way. That's another reason why I enjoy Roger Smith's work.