American spy : a novel

by Lauren Wilkinson

Paper Book, 2018

Call number




New York : Random House, [2018]


Fiction. African American Fiction. Thriller. Historical Fiction. HTML:�American Spy updates the espionage thriller with blazing originality.��Entertainment Weekly �There has never been anything like it.��Marlon James, GQ �So much fun . . . Like the best of John le Carr�, it�s extremely tough to put down.��NPR NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY CHICAGO TRIBUNE AND ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review � Time � NPR � Entertainment Weekly � Esquire � BuzzFeed � Vulture � Real Simple � Good Housekeeping � The New York Public Library 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. NOMINATED FOR THE NAACP IMAGE AWARD � Shortlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize �Spy fiction plus allegory, and a splash of pan-Africanism. What could go wrong? As it happens, very little. Clever, bracing, darkly funny, and really, really good.��Ta-Nehisi Coates �Inspired by real events, this espionage thriller ticks all the right boxes, delivering a sexually charged interrogation of both politics and race.��Esquire �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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
American Spy: A Novel, Laura Wilkinson, author; Bahni turin, narrator
I tried, on several occasions to get into this book, but to no avail. I found it difficult to follow or enjoy. It was confusing as the time line seemed erratic. Although I tried, I could not identify with any of the characters.
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The subject matter contained too much detail and dialogue that I could not relate to and I found that the anti-American sentiment, coupled with the emphasis on existing racism was off-putting. The negativity seemed contradictory since the main characters, the Mitchell sisters, seemed devoted to the United States with one enlisting in the Vietnam era and the other becoming a spy for the FBI.
The novel is mostly about one of the two African American sisters who were raised by their father who was in law enforcement and a mother who was possibly a spy. At some point, she basically abandoned the children and her husband, leaving the two girls to be raised by their father. She did remain in touch, but barely.
The story plays out as a letter written by Marie Mitchell, to her two young boys, shortly after there was an attempt on her life because of something she did in the past as an undercover agent. She wants them to understand what has happened and why she has fled America and taken them to live with her mother in Martinique. She wants them to understand more about her life in case she disappears.
I could not identify in any way with Marie’s life, her lifestyle or her choice of friends. I never heard of the country she was sent to in West Africa, as an undercover agent. I did not feel the history was sufficiently explained for me to relate to it well. If it was not based on something supposedly historic, perhaps I could have suspended disbelief, but it is represented as historic fiction. I simply could not warm to any of the characters, either.
Sometimes, themes are placed in books that are irrelevant, and I believe the LGBTQ theme was such a case. Had the book just been about the effort of these two women to break into fields of work that were traditionally white and male oriented, it would have been enough, but there were too many tangents. Using Marie Mitchell as a sexual decoy simply added another unpleasant dimension. I would like to know the true story, if there is one, about these two devoted sisters.
On a positive note, I grew up in or knew of the neighborhoods Marie describes in the New York area, and lived in that time, as well, so I found the memories nostalgic. However, I am not sure why the book has received so many rave reviews other than the fact that it fits very well into the current progressive narrative with which we are being brainwashed daily. I read two thirds of the book and then simply gave up. The over the top Reagan bashing was my breaking point.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This is a novel in the form of a confessional letter written by a woman named Marie to her sons because she fears she is about to die and she wants them to know her story. She worked as an FBI agent in the 1980s, and found herself involved in some unethical situations. Her confession tells of her
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childhood in Harlem and her adoration of her sister and father and her desire to work for the FBI to fulfill her father's dreams of creating an equitable world and her sister's dreams of being a badass spy. Once she is in the FBI, she finds it hard to accomplish anything meaningful, especially because as a black woman she is undervalued and relegated to tedious tasks. She is given an opportunity to do something bigger: to get close to the communist leader of Burkina Faso, where the American government is trying to install their own puppet government.

There are lots of spy stories out there, but this one is unusual in so many ways. I don't know of any other spy novels where the spy is a black woman. Marie is incredibly intelligent and analytical. She believes in the greater good, but she questions the FBI and their methods. She is willing to take the law into her own hands if need be.

The book also grapples with the difficult questions of complicity. Marie carefully examines her own role in what is happening in the world around her and has to make some difficult decisions about what she is willing to participate in.

This book is more cerebral than most spy thrillers - there's more introspection than action, which makes the book feel a little slow, but also a lot more realistic.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
I had high hopes for this novel, based on a real African-American spy in the 1980s whose mission is to get close to African revolutionary Thomas Sankara. But while the story was interesting, it crawled along. It was hard to feel invested and never really clicked for me. In the end, I think I
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would’ve been more interested to read a nonfiction account of the same events.

“It’s not romantic to be so loyal that you compromise your sense of yourself.”
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
Marie is an intelligence officer with the FBI. She's brilliant, knowledgeable and dedicated. But it's 1986 and Marie is a young black woman, so the FBI doesn't know what to do with her, leaving her to fill out paperwork and cultivate assets she'll never be allowed to use. She's seen a family friend
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sidelined and she's intent on avoiding his fate. So when the CIA comes knocking with an assignment that sounds too good to be true, she's cautious, but very interested. And so Marie becomes involved in the workings of the government of Burkina Faso and with American interests there that may or may not be above board.

This is a well-plotted spy thriller that respects the parameters of the genre while blowing them away with a clear-eyed look at how our government's agencies worked to destabilize foreign governments and how racism and misogyny kept them largely composed of clean-cut white men. Which is not to say that American Spy isn't full of action-packed scenes or fascinating geopolitics. Lauren Wilkinson has managed to write a novel that is a fast-paced thriller and a nuanced exploration of what it means to be a black woman working in a field dominated by white men.
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LibraryThing member Dreesie
I have seen mixed reviews on this one, but I really liked it. I liked the settings (New York, Martinique, Burkina Faso), I liked the family dynamics between Marie, her sister Helene, their mother Agathe, and their dad. I liked the way Marie is able to read and manipulate others' interpretation of
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her. I liked that she is not an unreliable narrator, and I enjoyed the twists. It's all good. This is a first novel, and I'm excited to read more from Wilkinson.
The story of Marie Mitchell, the mother of twin boys, has fled the states to her mother's home in Martinique. Why did she feel the need to flee?

Marie originally joined the FBI to live her late older sister's dream--though she knows she can do it too. She is a great judge of character and can read people easily--as well as manipulate their thoughts about her. But there isn't really room to advance if you are an African-American woman--that's two strikes against you. She may be stuck recruiting low-level informants forever. So when Marie is offered a new opportunity to be part of a CIA operation in Burkina Faso, she takes it.

But the whole operation is not quite what she expected--and no one is what she expected. Who can she trust when everyone around her can read people and manipulate others as well--or better--than she can?
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LibraryThing member kayanelson
2019 Summer TOB--For the most part I liked this book. The plot was compelling. The writing style at times was difficult to plod through--but not all the time. The ending was disappointing. The message of the book was good though.
LibraryThing member booklove2
Somehow it seems there hasn't been a book within my limited knowledge about a black woman spy. How has this not happened yet? Marie is a young woman who is descended from a cop father and a disappearing mother from Martinique. Taking place in the late 80s and early 90s, the book opens with an
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intruder Marie must kill in her house. This near-death situation inspires a narrative that is written for her young twin boys in case something happens to her. It describes Marie's history as a spy. It's certainly a unique premise. I just wish there had been more detail to it to really make an impact. It's not a long book - less than 300 pages. So even an extra 50 pages of gooey spy details, or more time spent with Marie that makes her less mysterious, would have made this a better book. I would have liked to see more of Marie's job to really solidify how much of a success or failure she was before seeing things go off the rails. Falling in love with the first person she is supposed to spy on doesn't really help her case. Marie has a close relationship with her sister Helene, but again, not close enough to put some pieces together within the book. Unless there will be a sequel, a little more detail would have been nice. I wish there had just been a little more to this book to make it truly shine. Marie was such a unique idea as a character! I think the excellent Ralph Ellison epigraph explains much of the book's purpose.
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LibraryThing member sberson
Quite readable. Enjoyed.
LibraryThing member waldhaus1
The time line jumps around a lot and everything takes place in the reader’s past - the early 90s being the most recent events. The protagonist has been both a FBI agent and a CIA contractor. While part of her is emotionally involved in her role as a federal agent in the end she falls out of
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sympathy with the goals and styles of both agencies. One aspect of the story typical of a spy story is the amount of gun violence. Character development is well done and interesting. Much of the action takes place in both Martinique and Burkina Faso with descriptions of the cultures in both places. Both have French as a primary language which the protagonist learned to speak from her mother who had grown up in Martinique. She also had a sister with whom she had a complex relationship and who dies under unclear circumstances
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LibraryThing member DGRachel
I picked this up thinking it was a spy thriller set in Burkina Faso, where the spy was a black woman. This intrigued me, as I have been looking for an spy thriller written by someone other than a white British or American man. I love espionage novels, but I desperately wanted a different
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American Spy does have spy thriller elements, but it's so much more. It's told as a journal/letter written by the main character to her sons after someone breaks into their home and she kills the intruder, explaining her history and theirs. It has an almost memoir feel to it, as Marie takes her sons and the reader through her childhood, her relationship with her sister, her time at the FBI, and her experience as a foreign operative in Africa.

It's nicely paced, and very unique. I've definitely never read a story quite like this one and it leaves you wanting more, wanting the rest of Marie's story. The ending isn't disappointing at all, but it is open, and I don't dare say more as I don't want to spoil it for anyone. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Bahni Turpin, and she was phenomenal.
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LibraryThing member TNbookgroup
A different take on the spy novel. The main character is an intelligence officer whose career has stalled out, possibly because of her race and gender. She's finally offered an important assignment, but it will involve seducing and betraying an African head of state. The novel has some John
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LeCarre themes--the loneliness of spy work, the psychic cost of betrayal, the questionable morality of spy agencies--but with a different central character whose life circumstances add new dimensions to the story.
320 p.
Hardback, kindle, due in paperback in March
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LibraryThing member kaulsu
I read this as an audible book. The narrator, Bahni Turpin did an excellent job with differentiating accents and characters. The book itself was lacking an ending that both tied the past to the future. I gather the author is hoping (planning?) to build the book into a series, which would negate
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what I see today as a weakness.

Would I read a second installment? I might...
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LibraryThing member ablachly
A smart, political, nicely paced spy story, featuring a young black woman working for the FBI in the 80s. Fantastic.
LibraryThing member shazjhb
It felt like this was not the first book. I could not work out what and why so many things happened. Nice to have an African American spy.
LibraryThing member barlow304
Not your average spy thriller, but a meditation on race, race relations, and American imperialism in Africa.

That is not to say that there's no action. True, the spy in the story is no James Bond, but the protagonist is much more true to life as real spies work. Marie battles racism and sexism,
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while agents try to find ways to use and exploit her. She in turn tries to use the government agents to obtain information about a family tragedy.

As she moves from FBI agent to contract worker for the CIA, she becomes ensnared in a plot against an African revolutionary leader, one who espouses Communism and denounces neocolonialism. When she realizes that she's misjudged the real aim of her project, she becomes determined to thwart the venal forces behind it, even in the face of danger.

Highly recommended for readers who want to see American spying through a new lens.
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LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
I was a little wary of this novel because of the terrific hype that accompanied its publication in the UK, with its dazzling cover strewn with encomia from the likes of former President, Barack Obama. Still, who am I to question the judgement of the President, and in this regard, he was right on
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the money.

The book takes the form of an account of here activities written by Marie Mitchell to explain to her children why various things had befallen them as a family. Ms Mitchell certainly has a strong story to tell. Born in Martinique, and consequently fluent in French, she had grown up in New York in the 1960s, where her father was a police officer. Her parents had split up while she was still young, and her mother had returned to the Caribbean, leaving Marie and her sister with their father. Following their mother’s departure, Marie’s elder sister assumed a huge role in her life, and Marie increasingly yearns to be like her, and to make her proud of her. This is significant for the story because, from a very early age, Marie’s sister had been determined to become a spy.

Following her sister’s lead, Marie is recruited into the CIA in the 1980s. There she is at first largely overlooked, and subjected to fairly blatant discrimination on the grounds of both her gender and her race. She is, however, temporarily assigned to the FBI, to assist their operation to observe Thomas Sankara, charismatic pro-Communist leader of the newly independent Burkina Faso, which as Upper Volta had been a French colony.

Sankara is an enigma, and poses an awkward dilemma for the West. Although clearly sympathetic to Communist powers during the height of the Cold War, he seems to the closet Africa had then come to a benevolent dictator. Vowing to excise corruption from his country (then one of the poorest in the world) he had sold the government’s fleet of luxury Mercedes limousines, replacing them with small Renault cars for government ministers. He had also established a viable programme of school building throughout the country, and seemed genuinely bent upon lasting reform. He had, however, bolstered his position with military support, and was moving to stop multi-party elections.

In 1987 Sankara visited New York to address the General Assembly of the United Nations, and Marie is deployed by the FBI to get to know him. Her fluency in French is a definite asset, and she manages to gain his confidence. Having established a rapport with Sankara, she is later deployed to Burkina Faso, masquerading as an employee of an NGO operating there.

That is the basic scenario, but does not do justice to Lauren Wilkinson’s skill in telling her story, all the more notable as this is her first novel. We pick up the story through a series of Marie’s recollection, moving back and forth in time as new events happen, and other memories are strewn along the way. Overall the effect is very impressive – I did feel that the story seemed occasionally to become bogged down, but just as I was starting to feel frustrated with it, the writer seemed also to sense that the story was straying, and she hauled it back on course. All in all, a very impressive debut.
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LibraryThing member judithrs
American Spy. Lauren Wilkinson. 2019. The blub on this book intrigued me. It is a novel about a black woman who joined the FBI in the 60s and then worked undercover with the CIA in Africa. The problems of discrimination she suffered because of her sex and race were repulsive, and how she overcame
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them and managed to survive is enlightening. The internal workings of the FBI and the CIA were fascinating assuming they were true. Interesting.
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LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Digital audiobook performed by Bahni Turpin

From the book jacket: It’s 1986, 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. So when she’ given the opportunity to
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join a shadowy task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the charismatic revolutionary president of Burkina Faso, 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. Yes, even though a part of her suspects she’s being offered the job because of her appearance and not her talent

My reactions:
What an interesting and inventive debut. Told as a letter to her young children, Marie relates the events that led to her meeting their father and her career in counterintelligence. Wilkinson uses some events from history – particularly the assassination of Thomas Sankara – to frame this story of personal responsibility, family dynamics, and loyalty: to family, to country, to social ideals.

I loved Marie as a central character. She’s principled, self-reliant, smart, resilient, strong in mind and body, and fiercely protective of her family. Do NOT mess with this woman!

Bahni Turpin performed the audio book and she does a marvelous job. She is quickly becoming one of my favorite audio narrators.
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LibraryThing member muddyboy
This book was up for an Edgar Award for best first mystery novel but really is not a mystery at all. Like the title indicates it is a spy novel. What makes it unique is that the principle character is a young African American woman who gets into the spy business because of her sister who precedes
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her. The novel takes place during the Reagan administration at the height of the Cold War. Her assignment is to go to Burkina Faso in Africa where she is to learn about the country's president which leads to many repercussions. A really great novel.
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LibraryThing member eas7788
Wasn't quite what I expected. Expertly read by Bahni Turpin. Very interesting in terms of the history I learned. I really like the voice of the protagonist, and the relationships between her and the main characters were strong. I wanted to go along for the ride with her -- but the plot was a little
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LibraryThing member SimB
An exploration into the murky boundaries between right and wrong, love and duty, truth and deception. Revenge and reconciliation.
LibraryThing member cherybear
Marie is an intelligence officer with the FBI. As a young black woman, she isn't taken all that seriously, although she's good at her job. When she is suddenly offered the chance to be part of a task force to gain intelligence on, and undermine, Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary president of the
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African country Burkina Faso, she takes the opportunity. She has mixed feelings about the job, the Burkina Faso government, and Sankara himself, whom she finds charismatic, brilliant, charming, and magnetic.
The book is written as a letter to her young twin sons, in case she isn't around to tell them her stories later in their lives. In her letter, she wrestles with her thoughts about women, sexism, racism, America's role in the world, her broken family, and more.
Sankara is a real historical figure, though the story is fiction.
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LibraryThing member rynk
A Black woman at the center of Cold War spy novel. Who would have suspected? Marie Mitchell is on assignment to, ahem, get close to the revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso. Twice as suspicious as her handlers, she still thinks she can outfox them and complete her mission without selling her soul.
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That makes her something of a double agent, as if just being Black weren't enough. Marie tells her tale as she's laying low, slowly revealing what led to her mysterious career choice as a spook. This was a character-rich commuter read when I started in February 2020; Covid happened, and I when I picked it up again it was summer action fare, in from the cold.
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
This novel wasn't exactly an easy read, but it was challenging in a good way. The narrator, Marie Mitchell, is a character full of nuance and complications. She's works for the FBI in the 1980s and finds herself pulled into an intelligence operation to bring down a West African leader. Marie has
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her own agenda, too, and she has an interest in learning more about the man behind this operation, who has a connection to her sister's death. All of this makes for a fascinating story and one that made me realize how little I knew about the Cold War in Africa.
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
This is not your typical spy thriller. It is historical fiction about Marie Mitchell, a black woman, daughter of a Martinican mother and an American father, who becomes an FBI agent. It takes place during the Cold War, covering a time period from her childhood in the 1960s to early 1990s. She is
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offered an opportunity to work with the CIA, which involves meeting Thomas Sankara, a (real) leader in Burkina Faso. His political actions are prominently featured, though his interaction with Marie is fabricated.

The narrative voice is first person, as if Marie is writing a letter to her two young twin sons to document their family history. It opens and closes as a thriller, but in between we learn about Marie’s family – estrangement from her mother, admiration for her sister, and her father’s background as a law enforcement officer. It is a book that shifts from plot-driven to character-driven, then back again.

Significant events take place in Martinique, Burkina Faso, and New York. I particularly enjoyed reading about the culture of these regions. It is nice to see a strong African American woman play the lead role in a spy novel. It is effective in featuring the roles of race and gender in the world of espionage. While it requires a suspension of disbelief in a few places, it is a solid debut and I look forward to reading more from Wilkinson.
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Edgar Award (Nominee — First Novel — 2020)
Anthony Award (Nominee — First Novel — 2020)
Macavity Award (Nominee — 2020)
Barry Award (Nominee — First Novel — 2020)


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