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“[This] unflinching, incendiary debut combines the espionage novels of John le Carré with the racial complexity of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
What if your sense of duty required you to betray the man you love?
It’s 1986, the heart of the Cold War, and Marie Mitchell is an intelligence officer with the FBI. She’s brilliant, but she’s also a young black woman working in an old boys’ club. Her career has stalled out, she’s overlooked for every high-profile squad, and her days are filled with monotonous paperwork. So when she’s given the opportunity to join a shadowy task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the charismatic revolutionary president of Burkina Faso whose Communist ideology has made him a target for American intervention, she says yes. Yes, even though she secretly admires the work Sankara is doing for his country. Yes, even though she is still grieving the mysterious death of her sister, whose example led Marie to this career path in the first place. Yes, even though a furious part of her suspects she’s being offered the job because of her appearance and not her talent.
In the year that follows, Marie will observe Sankara, seduce him, and ultimately have a hand in the coup that will bring him down. But doing so will change everything she believes about what it means to be a spy, a lover, a sister, and a good American.
Inspired by true events—Thomas Sankara is known as “Africa’s Che Guevara”—American Spy knits together a gripping spy thriller, a heartbreaking family drama, and a passionate romance. This is a face of the Cold War you’ve never seen before, and it introduces a powerful new literary voice.
Advance praise for American Spy
“Echoing the stoic cynicism of Hurston and Ellison, and the verve of Conan Doyle, American Spy lays our complicities—political, racial, and sexual—bare. Packed with unforgettable characters, it’s a stunning book, timely as it is timeless.”—Paul Beatty, Man Booker Prizewinning author of The Sellout
“American Spy is by turns suspenseful, tender, and funny, always smart and searingly honest. Lauren Wilkinson renders the world of spies with vivacity and depth, and shines a penetrating light on what it’s like to be a black woman in America. But like all great novels, this one teaches us most about ourselves and our values. ”—Sara Nović, author of Girl at War
Under the Cover
An excerpt from American Spy
I unlocked the safe beneath my desk, grabbed my old service automatic, and crept toward my bedroom doorway, stealthy until I was brought to grief by a Lego Duplo that stung the sole of my foot. I hobbled the rest of the way to the door and crouched behind it.
A few moments passed, just enough time for me to feel ridiculous. I told myself that what I’d heard was the house settling. That was always what it wound up being.
The room was still and dark; the only light was from the moon. Poochini, our German shepherd mix, was closed in your bedroom with you. He let out a single, cautious bark. I heard the whoosh of tires on asphalt—a car passing on the Boston Post Road, which was hidden just behind the tangle of woods at the back of our small house. Then it was quiet again.
That night I’d been up late working on a translation at the desk in my room, so it was after two when I’d finally shut off the light and climbed into bed. I hadn’t been able to sleep. As I was staring at the ceiling, I’d thought I’d heard a floorboard creak in the hall. Instinctively, I’d climbed out of bed and gone for my gun.
Your room was across from my own. I pictured you both asleep, and told myself I was being irrational. I told myself we were safe.
Then a man appeared in my bedroom, and my heart picked up speed as I watched him approach my bed. I lunged low at him from behind, toppling him to the floor with a crash. His gun thudded against the hardwood and disappeared into the darkness. He tried to stand, but I climbed on him, pinned him down. His lean, hard body bucked beneath mine. He shoved me off and my back collided with the bedside table. My lamp clattered to the floor. I’d lost my gun too. I tried to get to my feet, but he grabbed a handful of my hair and yanked me back down. He rolled on top of me and his hands searched for my neck. They found my mouth instead, and I bit him so hard he screamed. Spat out an expletive that was the first word uttered by either of us. I clawed the skin I could get at—his face, his arms—and struggled against his weight. He went for my neck again, and as he started to squeeze I reached behind me, flailing my arms, hoping to find the fallen lamp in the dark; instead my fingers curled around a 9mm that didn’t belong to me. I lifted it to the man’s temple. Squeezed the trigger.
The sound of the shot exploded through our quiet house. He crumpled and his weight pressed me down against the hardwood, suffocating me. I heard Poochini race into the room and your footsteps in the hall. Gasping, I struggled to push the heavy body off me, then went to turn on the overhead light and lock the door so you couldn’t see inside my room. My breath came hard and fast as I looked at the body.
“Maman?” one of you called from the hall.
“Stay there,” I barely managed to choke out, still coughing. My voice was raw and constricted from the violence done to my throat. And my senses were surreally sharp, the effect of the adrenaline coursing through me. I felt like I could see more clearly than I ever had before, and smell more keenly: The tangy scent of his blood and sweat in the air were oppressively strong. I looked at his face. Much of it was missing, but I didn’t think I recognized him. Poochini watched me check his pockets for ID, but found none. It didn’t matter—I knew who’d sent him.
“I’m coming right now,” I called to you two as I searched for my gun. I locked it back in the safe, and took the man’s with me. Poochini followed me out of the bedroom and tracked bloody dog prints all over the wood floor. I pulled the door closed behind me.
William, you were there blinking against the bright light; Tommy, you were peeking out from your room, half hidden behind the doorframe. I realized the phone was ringing.
“Blood,” you said, William, and pointed at my face.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m okay.” I sped down the hall, crossed the living room to the front door, and stepped outside. Peered out into the dark, but didn’t see anyone or any unfamiliar cars. I went back inside. You’d followed and were standing in the foyer. Tommy, you were crying. I wanted to pick you up but didn’t because of the blood on my clothes.
“We’re safe,” I said, hoping to soothe you as I made a circuit around the living room, Poochini following in my wake as I looked for the man’s point of entry.
I went back down the hall and into the bathroom. He’d come in through the window there. I stared at the broken glass, then looked at my reflection in the medicine cabinet. There was blood on my face and neck and T-shirt. The man had choked me so hard that he’d broken blood vessels in my cheek. I turned on the tap; as I was washing my face, the phone sounded again. I picked up the living room extension, as if in a trance. My neighbor Irena was on the line. She lived next door, close enough to have heard the shot.
“Marie! I’ve been calling. Thank god, you’re all right.” Because she was panicked, her Polish accent was especially pronounced. Irena was around my mother’s age. I went to her house sometimes to sit at her kitchen table, sip coffee, and gossip. We were bonded as conspirators. Outsiders. Neither of us was the type to talk about our past, but I’d picked up on the little hints that suggested she’d seen mayhem in her life: There weren’t many retirees in that sleepy town who could so confidently identify the sound of a gunshot in the middle of the night.
I told her I was fine, then hung up abruptly because I’d heard a siren approaching. Irena must’ve called the police. I ushered you both back to your room, told you to wait there with Poochini. The bell rang.
“Marie Mitchell?” a cop called through the front door, and rapped on it once before kicking it open. As I was pulling your door closed, several sets of boots stomped through my living room. Three cops appeared at the mouth of the hall, trapping me. All three had their weapons drawn. Still holding the gun, I put up my hands.
Two of the cops stayed at the end of the hall while the third approached me. “Put the weapon down!” he ordered. “Put it down!”
“Listen, sir, my sons are in the house,” I said as I bent to put the gun on the floor. You both were shrieking with fear.
“Do you have any other weapons on you?” he asked.
“They’re behind this door. They’re just little boys. They’re four. Please don’t—”
“Shut your mouth and answer the question,” he barked. “Anything else on you that could be a danger to us?”
The cop pressed me hard against the wall, and pain flashed through my bruised chest. As he searched me roughly, I stayed passive and compliant. He was twice my size, but if he’d shot me, they’d say in the report that it was because I posed a threat to him.
Speaking as calmly as I could, not wanting to alarm him I said, “He’s in my room, sir. He was going to kill me. I live here.”
“I don’t know, sir. But he’s dead.” I added, “My father’s a cop. His shield’s in my purse.” I kept a replica in a pouch with my insurance and registration, so if I ever got stopped in the car, I could casually flash it while handing over my documents.
The first cop glanced back to the other two. “She’s clear.”
As they holstered their guns, I asked if they wanted me to get the shield. The first cop shook his head. All three had finally started to relax.
“Which room’s the body in? This one?” He had his hand on the knob to my bedroom door. I nodded quickly. He opened it and went inside.
“Can I go in my sons’ room?” I asked one of the other cops, who nodded.
“Maman, I’m scared,” you said, Tommy, and clung to me.
“I know.” Not caring about the blood anymore, I crouched to put my arms around you both. I held you for as long as I could and kissed you. Then I quickly packed a backpack and shepherded the two of you and the dog out into the hall. You both tensed at the sight of the policeman. Tommy, I had to pick you up because you wouldn’t walk.
“Don’t go too far,” one of the cops called after me as I was leaving. At Irena’s house, she opened the door and threw her arms around me despite the state of my clothes. She was the only person living on our cul-de-sac that I genuinely liked.
“I have to go to the hospital.”
She hugged me again; I must’ve sounded dazed. She said, “They can stay here as long as you need.”
Before I left, I went to Irena’s kitchen, to her bedroom, to each room of her house, assessing all the points of entry while everyone, Poochini included, followed quietly. You were more vulnerable there than I would’ve liked, but I didn’t have much of a choice.
Once you realized I was leaving, you both started to cry again. As gently as I could, I had to unhook your arms from around my calves, and that was more painful to me than any of the damage done to my body. I promised I’d be back as soon as I could. I meant it.
Back at our house, a pair of EMTs had arrived. As one looked me over she told me what I already knew: My lip would need stitches. I said I’d drive myself to the hospital after the cops interviewed me, which I knew they needed to do.
The one who I’d felt most threatened by slipped on a falsely soothing posture that grated my nerves. He asked me if I needed anything, which I recognized as a prelude; he was testing the waters to see if I was ready to answer questions. I said, “Go ahead. Ask me anything you need to.”
“Start from the beginning. What happened?”
“I was asleep in my room. It was three, maybe? I heard a noise in the hall and—”
“You were sleeping?”
“I was trying to sleep when I thought I heard something.”
“Mm-hmm.” The cop’s eyes ran across my face. Heat flashed up into my cheeks, as I worried that my eagerness to be as truthful as possible made me sound like I was lying. Your grandfather was a career cop, which instilled a fear of authority in me that even my own time as a Fed couldn’t cure.
The interview continued. Two coroners came through the open door. I waited around for everyone to clear out, then went to get my lip fixed. By the time I got back to our street, it was almost dawn. Next door, I looked in on you in Irena’s den. You were lying on her pullout couch under a pile of blankets. Tommy, you’re easy to miss when you’re asleep. Your brother takes up a lot of space; he’s all limbs, like a sweet little squid. But, Tommy, you curl into an impossibly tight ball.
Poochini came over to me, and I scratched him between the ears. I asked Irena in a whisper, “How were they?”
She shook her head. “It took them a long time to fall asleep.”
I threw back a corner of one of the blankets and risked waking you to kiss your foreheads. Neither of you stirred. As Irena turned back to the hall, I wished her a good night, then sat on the arm of the sofa, and watched you sleep for a while, too wired to do so myself.
Martinique, Two Days Later
The man I’d killed had been an intruder in our home; I felt no legal obligation to the situation other than to submit to an interview as I’d done on the scene. But I wasn’t sure the cops would see it the same way, so we’d left the United States on a set of fake passports that my father’s friend Mr. Ali had prepared for me a few years earlier in case of an emergency. I hope that nothing about your adult lives will require you to be as paranoid as I was. The clerk at the Jumbo Car rental desk asked how my day was going, then looked up at me from his console. The smile slid from his face when he saw my stitches and the bruise in full bloom on my cheekbone.
I briefly took off my sunglasses so the clerk could compare my face to the one in the photo. The name on the license I gave the clerk matched my passport: Monica Williams. He used that name as he handed back my paperwork, and I glanced down at you two. Your French was good enough to have understood him, but you seemed oblivious to the new name.
Outside, you climbed into the backseat of a sporty-looking red Peugeot with Poochini; the clerk had given me a free upgrade to a larger car. I loaded our luggage into the trunk, then started up the engine.
Martinique’s airport is in Le Lamentin, an industrial district, and as we sped along a factory-lined highway, I told you about the day you were born. That day we’d driven along the same road; I pointed out the window to the spot where my mother and I’d been forced to pull over when her old truck had run out of gas. We’d ended up having to hitch a ride to the maternity hospital, ten miles away. All that had happened because truck drivers for the oil refinery on the island had been on strike, refusing to deliver to any of the gas stations. On strike—it’s a very French country. When they call it an overseas department they mean it.
Lauren Wilkinson earned an MFA in fiction and literary translation from Columbia University, and has taught writing at Columbia and the Fashion Institute of Technology. She was a 2013 Center for Fiction Emerging Writers Fellow, and has also received support from the MacDowell Colony and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Wilkinson grew up in New York and lives on the Lower East Side. This is her first novel.