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Running toward truth

A fast-paced spy thriller explores the ambiguities of wartime
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  April 9, 2008

The first wave of current-war fiction is washing up on American shores, and Alex Carr’s The Prince of Bagram Prison is a prime example. The international spy thriller doesn’t pretend to offer any comprehensive take on US-Middle Eastern conflicts, but within the parameters of the genre, it offers a wary glimpse inside the international intelligence-gathering community.

Carr (a Mainer who also writes novels under her real name, Jenny Siler) presents a foggy and dangerous world where very little is as it seems, and very few people can be trusted. Carr’s main characters are Katherine "Kat" Caldwell, an Arabic-speaking intelligence officer, and 15-year-old Jamal, whose mix-up in an insidious CIA plot is the crux of the novel.

After he is captured in a Special Forces raid, and interrogated at Afghanistan’s Bagram Prison (the real-life site of atrocious prisoner abuses), Jamal finds himself serving as a low-level informer for American forces. In an attempt to collect more money, and to perhaps gain passage to the United States, Jamal tells his employers not the truth, but what they want to hear — that he’s seen a key operative for whom the Americans are looking. Then Jamal disappears — and two British agents (including Kat’s former lover) are found dead. Because Jamal's false information deals with covert Western-Arab spy ties — of which the murdered men were aware — he’s a hot commodity; the number of people on Jamal’s tail quickly grows, as does the cat-and-mouse intrigue.

The Prince of Bagram Prison by Alex Carr | Random House | 304 pp | $14

Alex Carr/Jenny Siler reads 7-9 pm April 17 | at the University of New England, 716 Stevens Ave, Portland | Free | 207.221.4324
Not only does Jamal’s lie serve as the catalyst for Bagram’s plot — it is also emblematic of the war in general, of the moral ambiguities that are an inevitable part of military strategy: “The first lie, so small, yet so reckless, not thinking of the lies that would follow, but only of what had to be done in that moment ... Thinking: details, one must have details to be believed ... The lie now unfolding as if of its own free will. Already too late to take anything back.” (218)

Carr’s prose echoes that dizzy lack of control — the story jumps between locations and time periods with striking frequency. (There’s also a rather sizeable cast of cynical characters to keep track of.) Readers will find themselves in Madrid, Virginia, Hawaii, and Morocco in the present, Vietnam 30-odd years ago, and Afghanistan in the recent past. At times, the flashbacks digress far from the main plot — as with a romantic subplot involving aging spies — which take away from the story’s urgency.

But they also serve to flesh out the novel’s main characters — Kat, the smart and likeable heroine; Harry Comfort, an aging spy who was Jamal’s one confidant; David Kurtz, the bad guy whose advances Kat once spurned; and Jamal’s long-missing mother.

As they do in any good spy novel, these characters are racing toward accurate information, and the protection that it affords. But don’t worry about trying to sort it all out before they do, because in the end, despite some resolutions, key parts of the mystery remain hazy and unsolved, even for Kat: “She was still not certain what had happened between him and Kurtz that last night in the Special Forces camp, what exactly, Colin had agreed to. She had reconciled herself with the fact that the details of the Iranian’s death would always be a mystery to her.” (277)

It’s difficult to believe these loose ends were a failing on Carr’s part; it’s easier to interpret any vagueness as symbolic of our ambivalence toward war, and the methods we use to fight it: Even if we think we’re on the right track, parts of the puzzle may never fit together.

Deirdre Fulton can be reached at

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