Sunday, January 23, 2011

THE GOOD SON Is the Real McCoy

Obviously, Robin Hathaway and myself are spiritual Bibliophilic kin. In her blog two Mondays ago, she confessed to a weakness for second-hand bookstores, thrift shops and the Salvation Army’s bookstalls where rare prizes wait to be claimed. She says she has a lot of books. Too many, her husband says. It just now occurred to me that Robin’s MD-husband and my Professional Chef-wife are cut from the same cloth, though you’d never suspect. The other day, we’re sitting in the parlor floor of our three-story townhouse when Rose says to me out of the blue: “So, what are you going to do about them?”

I play dumb. “About what?” I say.

“About the thousands of books you have on those shelves,” she says, exasperated, raising both arms above her head and waving them in a circular motion that puts me in mind of a traffic controller on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, signaling an incoming jet to land or waving him off. But I don’t say what’s in my mind, it would be impolitic. Besides, she exaggerates; maybe I have 1,500.

One of those priceless novels God gave me because I was a first-reader for the 2010 Hammett Literary Prize is The Good Son by Michael Gruber. Let me make clear that my opinion of The Good Son and the other two previously reviewed, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter and Iron River, is just that—one man’s opinion, mine. I am one of five first readers of the almost 200 books submitted for the Hammett Prize. My enthusiasms have frequently differed from my fellows’. Eventually, “no less than three, nor more than five” will be nominated and sent to three judges who will select the one. Who will be nominated, who will win, I have no idea—nor do I much care because I have been amply rewarded for my toil by the presence of all those wonderful books on my shelves.

The Good Son is a wondrous novel, alternately set in the spook world of Washington, D.C., Lahore, Pakistan, and Pashtunistan in the Northwest Frontier. Michael Gruber is a master storyteller, insinuating the reader into the dense, fascinating worlds of NSA intelligence plotters, upper-class Pakistani politicians and the Pashtun clan’s warrior culture. From page 1, the first-person voice of half-breed Theo Bailey, U.S. Army Special Ops soldier, born into a Punjabi upper-crust family in Lahore, a teenage mujahideen in the Afghan jihad against the Russians, kidnapped and brought to America through the CIA connections of his American mother—Theo’s voice pulls you into the roiling waters of an al-Qaeda nuclear plot and counter-plot. Theo Bailey is a marvelously-conflicted character—trained U.S. Army killer, native speaker of Urdu, Dari and Pashto, in his heart a Pashtun warrior. The inciting incident of the book is the taking hostage of his mother, Sonia, a world-renowned Zurich-trained Jungian therapist leading a peace conference into a remote region of Pakistan.

Sonia Bailey Laghari’s third-person voice illuminates wonderfully her adopted Pakistani world as well as the alien tribal culture of her Pashtun and Arab captors. For every Muslim death caused by American bombs, a captive academic will be beheaded, the event recorded on a camcorder for viewing on the Internet—Sonia to choose the victim each time. One of the joys of the novel is the dialogues of Sonia, a convert to Islam, a Sufi, defending herself by quoting the Qur’an to her captors. At night, she interprets the dreams of her guards and their wives who have heard of her witchly powers.

No one creates alien worlds more masterfully than Michael Gruber. His earlier novels (under his own name)—Tropic of Night, Valley of Bones, and Night of the Jaguar
are detective novels set in Miami against a backdrop of African voodoo. And no one meshes the intriguing history of place with gripping plots better. I haven’t read as good a spy novel set in Afghanistan-Pakistan since Alex Berenson’s The Faithful Spy, and The Good Son is even better.

(Next time, Nowhere to Run by C.J. Box, and Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny.)

Robert Knightly


  1. You may say your judgments are your own, Bob, but from what I can see your taste is unerring. All the books you like are being praised all over the place--

  2. Kate is right, Robert. Your taste is unerring. I bought "Crookedly Letter, Crookedlt Letter" and gave it to my brother for Christmas, and the next thing I knew it was nominated for an Edgar for best novel!