John Le Carré’s notorious double agent Bill Haydon believed that a country’s intelligence services were the true embodiment of its national character. Seems to be so, judging by this very American story of two burned-out spooks who fall in love. Their twin-track stories unfold all over the world, wherever the U.S. has interests, while both agents watch their first marriages crumble under the strain of secrecy, lies and frequent absence. And perhaps most American of all, after Bob Baer retired in 1997 he didn’t fade into the shadows but became the best-known ex-agent in CIA history. Time magazine’s online intelligence columnist, he has written for Vanity Fair and the Washington Post, and authored several books, one the basis for the Oscar-winning film Syriana. George Clooney’s character, Bob Barnes, is loosely based on Baer.
The story really picks up after Bob and Dayna work a mission together in Sarajevo during the wars sparked by the breakup of Yugoslavia, before accidently meeting again back at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., where they can finally reveal their real names to each other. They leave the agency and move to (of all places) Beirut, which Bob had come to love during his stints as a Mideast op. Shadowy acquaintances readily accept the couple is no longer tied to Washington, but believe that means they must be up for anything: they receive dodgy offers of work in the oil business and an invitation to join a murder-for-hire plot. Bob and Dayna keep moving around, like the rootless agents they were, but eventually settle down. And they decide to adopt a Pakistani baby, embarking on an uncertain process that provides the most heart-stopping suspense in the entire book. The Company We Keep is one of the oddest spy tales ever penned, and if the reader sometimes pauses at what’s being stated by authors who were, after all, accomplished professional liars, there’s enough rough verisimilitude here to conclude the book truly is something even more rare: a spy story with a happy ending.