Marc Grossman and John Limbert, two retired diplomats, have written the finest spy story that I’ve read in years. BELIEVERS, Love and Death in Tehran, is the rare book that focuses on the spy as opposed to the counter-espionage team trying to find the mole. In so doing, they weave a very human story through a timeline of historical events in such a way that the reader both empathizes with the lonely spy and recalls the emotions brought on by the hostage crisis that followed the Islamic revolution.
Grossman and Limbert each have extensive experience in the region and at the State Department’s highest levels. Grossman had been Ambassador to Turkey, Undersecretary for Political Affairs, and was called out of retirement to be Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2011. Limbert, also a former Ambassador, spent much of his career in the Middle East and Islamic Africa. He was also among the hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran from 1979 to 1980. He retired to teach history at the U.S. Naval Academy but took leave in 2010 to return to the State Department to head the office responsible for U.S. Iran policy.
With their backgrounds, the reader longs to know how much of the novel is fiction and how many kernels of truth are embedded in the narrative. Indeed, the book covers Iran’s history beginning with the hostage crisis, Iran’s war with Iraq, the attack on the USS Stark, Iran-Contra affair, and the downing of Iran Air 655 by the USS Vincennes. You see these events both through the eyes of the spy and senior U.S. policymakers.
There is enough tradecraft to satisfy anyone looking for a classic cloak-and-dagger tale and a love affair that is believable enough to satisfy someone looking for pulp fiction. I might pick a few nits over the spy’s initial exfiltration and am tempted to observe that, at times, the background narrative reads like an internal memo at the State Department. But those are minor flaws and much less objectionable than the flowery prose in other books that I recently read.
The book jumps to the present to close out the primary story. With a plot device worthy of the conspiracy theories that populate some corners of the Internet, they offer a satisfactory resolution to several threads of the story. But it was the epilogue that makes me say that was the most satisfying book that I’ve read this year. In it, the story again focuses on the human side of living with secrets. For that reason, it is particularly satisfying when the protagonist, a strong-willed woman who had endured so much comes, finally tells her son, grandson, family and a few close friends the story of her life while facing death.
BELIEVERS, Love and Death In Tehran