Tricks of the Spy’s Trade

By Lou Ann Walker
Lea Carpenter Michael Lionstar

“Red, White, Blue”
Lea Carpenter
Knopf, $26.95

In her stylized, stylish new novel, “Red, White, Blue,” Lea Carpenter explores a world that is unknowable to the vast majority of us — the intrigues of international spies. They can’t possibly exist, can they? The grandeur of their exploits is surely the stuff of make-believe. Certainly tricking countries, bollixing up the inner workings of armies, navies, and air forces, foiling weapons of mass destruction . . . ?

In a way, Ms. Carpenter takes us to the behind-the-behind-the-scenes actions. The central story is of Anna, a brilliant young woman whose father, a banker, is full of charm and love for her. However, her mother departs the family without much explanation when Anna is small. Nonetheless, Anna goes on to excel, at Princeton, at a tremendous job in Manhattan, and she is engaged to marry a fellow who checks all the boxes — he is even willing to sell his music-producing business in order to run for the U.S. Senate. 

On the eve of the wedding, Anna’s father dies in a skiing accident in the Swiss Alps. The daughter is bereft.

The backbone of the story, the crisscrossing of information and disinformation, as well as many other tales, starts with a mysterious stranger — never named, never described — Anna meets during her honeymoon in Cap d’Antibes. A person who knows a great deal about her father, his background, and Anna. How likely is coincidence among spies?

The crux of this novel clearly swirls around truth and its mutability. Forget the reliability of facts.

Early on, Ms. Carpenter writes: “The polygraph is a very elaborate parlor trick. . . . Your chance of detecting deception on a poly is no better than that, chance.” She points out that “it takes less training to become a polygrapher in the state of Virginia [where the C.I.A.’s Langley base is] than it takes to become a cosmetologist.”

The mysterious stranger goes on to explain the tactics of the polygrapher: “After they go through their questions they leave the room. Then they come back in and say something like, I really want to help you through this, and they add something like, I know you are having trouble with one of these questions. Then they take a dramatic pause and say, Which one do you think it is?”

The tricks are all about pauses. We encounter plenty of them along the way in this work.

One high point in Ms. Carpenter’s fascination with espionage is the novelist’s attention to detail, the way she illuminates seemingly unrelated background information. Via said mysterious stranger: “The person who invented the polygraph,” Ms. Carpenter transcribes, “is William Marston, whose other great achievement in life was writing the Wonder Woman cartoons. Do you remember her magic golden lasso of truth. We’re talking about magic lassos. We’re talking about you, in a freezing room, in this high-backed chair with tubes strapped on to you. When I asked them, ‘What are you looking for,’ their response was, ‘You’re not adequately respecting this process.’ ”

The tasks, the subterfuge, the avoidance of subterfuge, the essential work of a spy, these form the behind-the-scenes action of the book. These themes in “Red, White, Blue” might easily be compared to what happens in Camus’s “The Stranger.” Don’t blink! Underlying Ms. Carpenter’s novel is an analysis of the absurd. Of humanity’s attempt to find rational order where none exists. 

The discussion of the polygraph that begins the novel is exhibit number one. Anna’s father, Noel, who seemed to be an insider, is truly an outsider. As is her mother, Lulu, who leaves the family to ensure her outsiderness. The mysterious narrator who is telling Anna all these stories is never named — because that would bring him into the picture. At the end of the novel Anna is only beginning to understand where she doesn’t fit in.

“ ‘Espionage isn’t a math problem,’ ” the novel’s anonymous interlocutor quotes Anna’s father’s words to her at the outset. “Espionage is intimacy, a trip to the truth. I was a skilled interrogator, but the hardest interrogation is the one we perform on ourselves, of course. Your father always said, ‘Ask the hard questions.’ And, ‘Write down the answers, else you’ll forget.’ ”

One polygrapher pause to which we are alerted both early on and later in the novel is this: “An elevated heartbeat skews a poly. And even an expert can cause an avalanche.” Noel knows the tricks, slowing down the heartbeat, not responding to questions about the young Asian woman with whom he’d had a single dinner. But what of everything else? Spoiler alert: Anna’s father died accidentally in a sudden Swiss avalanche the day before Anna’s wedding. He’d had a loaded gun with him. “If he was alone on the mountain that day, Noel would have been ecstatic, and calm.” Wait. Did he . . . or didn’t he? Was he . . . or wasn’t he?

Ms. Carpenter precedes her novel by thanking “the extraordinary people who shared their stories with me.” After the last page, she writes a disclaimer: “No one I interviewed during the course of my research disclosed classified information.” As readers we feel the frisson of all that has gone in between. Which of these statements represents the truth? Which a spy’s lie?

Lou Ann Walker is the director of the M.F.A. program in creative writing and literature at Stony Brook Southampton and Stony Brook Manhattan.

Lea Carpenter is the author of the novel “Eleven Days.” She spends summers in Southampton.