A SIMPLE ACT OF VIOLENCE is a book to get lost in. It starts, as the title states, with a simple act of violence, the murder of a woman in her home. She is a very simple woman – she has no history to complicate her life. But it is that lack of history that makes her a tiny piece in the most complicated of all games, espionage. This book, like Robert Littel’s THE COMPANY, tells a fictionalized version of late twentieth century US history or a history of the United States that is completely fiction.
A SIMPLE ACT OF VIOLENCE is different than most of the books written in the recent past. It is at once a murder mystery, a thriller, and an indictment of politics in these United States. It is Oliver North, Iran-Contra, and Nicaragua. It is Reagan and the monster in everyone’s closet – communism, the Evil Empire, the world-wide plot to bring the United States to its knees.
This book is as much about John Robey as it is about Robert Miller. Robey is the voice that breaks the narrative, the words in italics used to explain what we didn’t know, what we didn’t want to know.
John Robey is CIA and so was Catherine Sheridan.
The CIA began as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II when Franklin Roosevelt realized that the information the US was receiving about the events in Europe were coming from Britain. The United States did not have an organization to seek out and disseminate clandestine information. Roosevelt placed the responsibility for the OSS in the hands of General “Wild Bill” Donovan. At the end of the war, Truman dismantled the OSS and it reappeared in 1946 to protect American interests outside its borders. The CIA was specifically prevented from running operations in the United States.
The CIA in A SIMPLE ACT OF VIOLENCE is the all-powerful, unchallenged organization with which we are familiar. John Robey is a veteran of clandestine operations and he is a cynic, a patriot without illusions. He tells the reader, “Richard helms, acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, once said in an address to the National Press Club, ” You’ve just got to trust us. We are honorable men.”…Captain George Hunter White, reminiscing about his CIA service, said, “I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the all-highest.”…It’s a fallacy. You cannot have a corrupt and self-serving organization populated by people who are there for the very best reasons. People wind up in the CIA, and they either get with the program, or they understand what the program is and get the …. out of there as fast as they can.”
Robey explains the difference between morals and ethics. Morals are the rules determined by society so that it can function without anarchy. Ethics determines how the rules are followed in a particular situation. Situational ethics belies the belief in law. The CIA exists to exploit or control a situation. John and Catherine were experts at the exploitation of men and nations in service of their country. When those skills brought them to Nicaragua in the eighties they were fully prepared to follow orders.
The United States began to lose its naivete with the assassination of John Kennedy. But twenty years later we were still willing to believe what we were told about being the only power that could prevent the world from falling to communism. The Sandinistas overthrew a dictatorial government and began a literacy program, the division of property to laborers, and the abolition of torture, movements that should have received the support of the United States. But Nicaragua allied itself with Cuba and when Reagan took office in 1981, the US actively backed the Contras. In exchange for sending drugs into the United States, the Contras got military hardware to battle the duly elected government led by the Sandinistas. Thirty years later, the tide of drugs into the US has not abated. Manuel Noreiga thanks us for our support.
The author writes concisely; the plainness of the language gives weight to the message. He describes the “sacred monster” the thing we create to further our purposes but which turns and devours us. He writes that there are, “Periods of American history considered unsafe to remember, events people pretended never occurred.” The CIA is the guardian of those secrets, “the best kept secrets are the ones that everybody can see” but that everyone ignores. Situational ethics encourages willful blindness.
This is a powerful book because it is a quiet one. Robey and Miller are talking about the movie “A Few Good Men.” Robey tells Miller , “What the movie was trying to communicate was the complete impossibility of preventing the bigger picture.
Catherine Sheridan’s death is not the prologue to the story. It is the postscript