The Indomitable Ignatius

Celebrating one of DC’s finest journalist-authors


The thriller novel has evolved since mid-last century from genre airport read to good literature by artful authors, my client Patrick Anderson wrote in his book, The Triumph of the Thriller. After reading Pat’s manuscript, and prompted by his idea, I began reading some of the best-known authors of the genre. I became hooked.

In a recent interview about his own writing, Scott Turow, whose work combines the treatment of serious subjects with reader accessibility, told about his awakening to the differences in writing styles.

When he read Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, Turow said, he saw the difference between high and low art, unrefined writings for the masses and exquisitely, economically written, aesthetically developed stories. This distinction became his "beacon," he stated, much as Anderson had suggested in his book that had so affected my own readings.

Graham Greene, Charles McCarry, John Le Carré, and Alan Furst are examples of writers whose spy and thriller books are comparable to the best literary novelists. They are good storytellers who are also artful writers. It is a guarantee, when picking up one of their books, that readers are in for a very good literary experience. Washingtonian magazine ran a piece years ago on what books literary agents filled their beach bags with that summer. I responded: anything by Greene and McCarry.

I’d add now — in any season — David Ignatius. I recently read several books, including Bloodmoney, The Increment, Agents of Innocence, and Body of Lies, by the Washington Post columnist, and each was worldly, wise, literary, and provided great reading pleasure.

Ignatius’ work straddles solid journalism and artful literature. Years ago, I reviewed Ignatius’ The Director for Washington Lawyer Magazine because it treated, in fiction, issues and insights related to the Edward Snowden affair, which I’d written about in a nonfiction collection of essays.

Here is an excerpt from Ignatius’ anti-hero:

“I didn’t kill anyone. I didn’t torture anyone. I didn’t listen to people’s telephone calls or steal their secrets. They claim that I broke the laws of the United States, but I didn’t break any of the laws of humanity. I left the CIA as an act of conscience. I revealed its secrets to give liberty to others. I took from the rich and gave to the poor. I’m proud of what I did.”

Sound familiar?          

But while aware of the civil liberties and privacy issues of government secrecy, Ignatius’ views are balanced. He is quite understanding of the confounding nature of the CIA’s mission. In the same novel, an official of the CIA says:

“The problem is that people from a younger generation, who do not understand what spying and sacrifice are all about, are trying to tear our world apart. They think that because technology connects everyone now, the world is open and there are no secrets. You and I know better than that. We know that without secrets, we will lose the very things we are trying to protect.”

Ignatius knows the Middle East from his travels as a journalist. As a result, his books take readers to Lebanon and Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the action has verisimilitude — the geography, streets, and hotels feel right. And references to the philosophy of Islamist theorists and moralists fill his pages.

Ignatius’ newspaper columns also combine his foreign-affairs expertise and worldly observations that are unique, especially in comparison to the common “pundit” columnists. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post about the current contretemps between the fired F.B.I. Director Comey and the angry President Trump, Ignatius referred to a remark of an Arab friend, one that is wise and profound: “For every question, there is a right answer and a real answer.”

Consider an example: that we have a tripartite form of government whose three major agencies overlap, oversee, and complement each other is right. It is Constitutional Law 101. However, the real insight, the realpolitik, is that these ideals and principles often do not reflect what happens. Does Congress really oversee executive agencies — the CIA or the presidency?

In the dark movie “The Good Shepherd,” Matt Damon, playing a CIA insider, is cautioned by a cynical colleague, “Oversight committee. Can you imagine that they think they are going to look into our closet? As if we’d ever let them.” Former senator Bob Graham has written about how his inquiries as head of the 9/11 Commission were rebuffed by the FBI — ask him how successful congressional oversight is.

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Washington, DC, is called a one-company town. But it isn’t exclusively one industry — government — anymore. Media is a permanent business in the nation’s capital, and its writers are more permanent characters than the politicians who come and go. CapitaLetters comments on books regularly, but it also discusses the writing world and the best of the current breed of writers. In the capital, David Ignatius surely is one.

Ronald Goldfarb is an attorney, author, and literary agent. His column, CapitaLetters, appears regularly in the Independent.

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