One night along the Cuban coast that adjoins the United States naval base at Guantanamo a body washes ashore. The body that of an American serviceman is found by a Cuban police officer on patrol. The officer rushes down the hill to chase away an iguana, recognizes that the body he has located is American and realizes how important his find is. So begins Dan Fesperman’s THE PRISONER OF GUANTANAMO, a book that will capture the reader’s attention immediately and maintain interest as the plot continues to unfold.
Fesperman’s main character is a former Marine and FBI agent named Revere Falk who was fluent in Arabic and was employed by the Pentagon as an interrogator at Guantanamo. After introducing the reader to the interrogator’s craft, Fesperman discusses a Yemeni detainee named Adran al-Hamdi, who Falk has worked very hard to establish a working relationship with in order to obtain what he believes to be important intelligence. Al-Hamdi was captured in Afghanistan by the Northern Alliance and was considered a major “head case.”
Once the American corpse is identified as SGT Earle Ludwig, the Pentagon asks Falk for assistance with the investigation into his death. Falks’s running commentary throughout the novel provides interesting insights into the American approach at GITMO to obtain intelligence and the relationship between the various US intelligence agencies. As the story progresses Falk is forced to revisit his past, particularly an error he made as a young Marine dealing with Cuban intelligence in Havana. As Falk’s investigation into Ludwig’s death develops it appears that he may have been murdered. At this point a number of new characters are introduced. Pam Cable, Falk’s girlfriend and fellow interrogator, Tim Bokamper, an old friend and FBI agent, and Gonzales Rubiero, an American who lived in Miami Beach, but spied for the Cubans. Each of these characters plays an important role in addition to the two representatives that the Department of Homeland Security dispatches to GITMO forcing the story in a different direction.
Fesperman provides a number of important insights as the novel builds. The reader is taken inside al-Hamdi’s head to experience how detainees reacted to their imprisonment. In addition, Fesperman examines Cuban-American relations particularly in the post 9/11 world. “Little Havana,” in Miami Beach is explored in the context of the post-Cold War period and is very accurate.
The key aspect of the novel is how its component parts fit together. How does Falk’s career as a young Marine fit into the investigation of Ludwig’s death and the reaction of other federal agencies? How does Ludwig’s death relate to Falk’s interrogation of al-Hamdi? What role does Cuban intelligence play in the events surrounding Ludwig’s death and what is their interest in al-Hamdi? Finally, why do people close to Falk’s investigation begin to disappear? Fesperman weaves his answers very carefully as the reader tries to make sense of certain aspects of the novel that seem to unfold in a world of jihadists, Cubans, and other misshapen secrets. For example, were there “higher ups” in Washington looking for links between Fidel Castro and al-Qaeda as a pretext for who knows what? The problem for Falk is that every time he feels he has figured out what was going on the tables are turned and he grows even more confused.
This was my first experience reading one of Fesperman’s novels and as a result he has created a new fan! I am looking forward to reading THE WARLORD’S SON another of his books as soon as I can.
(GITMO, the home of many individuals, both terrorists and non-terrorists)