As Mark Greaney’s Agent in Place blasts into action, lethal CIA contractor Court Gentry is trapped in a line of prisoners being fed one-by-one to an ISIS executioner in Syria. (And since Greaney is a munitions expert, you know exactly what model of Kalashnikov the killer is using.) That’s the prologue, and for the next 500 pages readers will retrace the steps that led Gentry to this potentially final scene. But as Greaney’s previous six Gray Man novels about Gentry make clear, the sometime agent doesn’t recognize the word “defeat” in any of the languages he speaks.
Greaney’s thrillers hew convincingly close to current events. The real sites and recognizable figures embedded in his tales supply ballast to his propulsive plots. A Memphis native, Greaney was Tom Clancy’s coauthor on several Jack Ryan novels and continued the series for several years after Clancy’s death. In both the Ryan and Gray Man franchises, he is adept at zeroing in on the political hotspot of the moment.
In Greaney’s 2014 Jack Ryan tale, Full Force and Effect, the villain is a Kim Jong-un-like Supreme Leader of North Korea. In Agent in Place, the serenely vicious dictator of Syria is Ahmed al-Azzam. Like the real-life President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, this character was a doctor whose older brother died in a car accident, leaving him to inherit their father’s regime. And Greaney’s fictional first lady of Syria, Shakira Azzam, has a background that echoes that of the real Syrian first lady, Asma al-Assad. She was born and educated in London and worked in banking before marrying. She was infamously called “Rose of the Desert” by Vogue, before the horrors of the Syrian government’s assaults on its citizens were fully exposed to the world. That’s when Newsweek bestowed a new title on her: First Lady of Hell.
A palace intrigue fuels the action in Agent in Place. The dictator’s mistress, a Spanish model, has given birth to his son. Shakira Azzam suspects her husband will try to replace her with the mother of his male heir, so when the baby’s mother travels to Paris to work in a fashion show, Shakira arranges to have ISIS assassins target her.
A husband-and-wife team of exiled Syrian doctors, who run a medical aid group, are also following the model’s travels because she has information that can bring Azzam down, and they hire Court Gentry to kidnap her while she’s in Paris. Sympathetic with their struggle against the brutal regime, Gentry gets the unwilling model out of her hotel suite and through a gun-and-grenade battle with five armed bodyguards and as many terrorists. (Don’t worry about spoilers. Things move fast in Gray-Man land, and we’re not even fifty pages into the book at this point.) But the mistress won’t cooperate unless Gentry rescues her baby from Syria. To slip into the violent country, he goes undercover as a mercenary for the regime.
Choose your weapons — guns, knives, barstools, antiaircraft cannons — Court Gentry manipulates the absurd odds in his favor. The thrill is in the wild-but-somehow-credible details of how he prevails in, say, a street fight with four French cops, or a bar brawl between competing Syrian fighting forces fortified by Russians and mercenaries. He’ll apply an elbow to the eye or a heel to the crotch of an opponent, but when the kindly doctor who hires him places a hand on his shoulder in gratitude, Gentry shrivels: “Court wished people would just stop touching him.” Offer him champagne in a room full of beautiful women and he gets gloomy. It might be Paris Fashion Week, but “Court was pretty sure he was in hell.”
When the doctors decide to withhold payment so their hired assassin will “reach out” to them, a French intelligence officer pans the plan: “I’ve seen numerous crime scene photos showing what it looks like when this man ‘reaches out.’” But the Gray Man’s heart for a good cause and grudging sense of humor give him weird charm.
A fellow soldier of fortune offers the reader a useful primer on the story’s chaotic battleground, where the Syrian Arab Army relies on Russians, Iranians, and militias run by organized-crime lords. Lined up against them are loosely-united clans fighting as the Free Syrian Army. In the meantime, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, including Kurds, fight ISIS in a corner of the state. Read Agent in Place, and you’ll find you have a deeper understanding of what’s going on in that tragic place, though the real-life ending doesn’t promise to be nearly as satisfying as the one in this book.
Peggy Burch was books editor at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis for ten years, and she also worked as a deputy metro editor and Arts & Entertainment editor for the newspaper. She is a graduate of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and holds a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Mississippi.