An African-American spy in the maelstrom of Cold War rivalry in Africa

American Spy is about Cold War rivalry in Africa.

“I was a Special Agent in the FBI from 1983 to 1987, and in that time CIA hired me twice as a temporary contractor, the phrase they use for spy.” The narrator is Marie Mitchell. American Spy is her story, written in 1992 in the first person as a diary for her young twin sons to read when they’re older. The action spans the thirty preceding years—from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the “New World Order” following the end of the Cold War.


American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson (2019) 292 pages

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Marie is the younger of two sisters. Helene, now dead, was five years older and Marie’s idol. It had been Helene’s ambition to join the CIA and later form her own private intelligence agency. And that’s what has led Marie to the FBI, and ultimately to agree to two assignments from the Company. Except, as we’ll learn later, they might not have come from the CIA at all.

From New York to Martinique to Burkina Faso

In American Spy, the action shifts rapidly and often from New York City to Martinique to Burkina Faso in flashbacks and flashforwards. Marie’s FBI posting was in the City. Her family had come from Martinique, and her mother has returned there to live. And Marie’s work for the CIA involves “getting close” to the dictator of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara.

Cold War rivalry in Africa lies at the heart of this story

Author Lauren Wilkinson has built her tale around real-world events that transpired in Burkina Faso. Her portrait of Sankara and her account of the actions he took as president of his country hew closely to the historical record. Sankara, and the country he tried so hard to reform, were victims of the Cold War between the US and the USSR.

Suspenseful, psychologically sound, and ultimately believable

Wilkinson’s command of plotting and character development are both skillful. Obviously, she understands the discriminatory treatment that hidebound agencies like the FBI so commonly doled out in years past to women and people of color. American Spy is suspenseful, psychologically sound, and ultimately believable. It’s all too typical of the Cold War rivalry in Africa and elsewhere around the world that victimized so many small nations caught in the middle between two superpowers.

How another reviewer saw the book

In reviewing American Spy, NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan wrote in the Washington Post Book Review (February 15, 2019), “Lauren Wilkinson’s new novel, ‘American Spy, is extraordinary in a lot of ways — most obviously because it places a female African American intelligence officer, Marie Mitchell, at the center of a Cold War tale of political espionage. But also striking is the novel’s deeper recognition that, to some extent, rudimentary tradecraft is something all of her African American characters have learned as an everyday survival skill. As Marie’s father wryly tells her on the day of her graduation from the FBI training academy at Quantico, ‘I’ve been a spy in this country for as long as I can remember.'”

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