Secrets of State
A novel by Matthew Palmer
Book review by Jules Brenner
Putnam, released 4/5/16, 448 pp., $16.00
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This espionage thriller, the second novel by a twenty-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, has the detailing and authenticity to enhance a plot about the possibilities of a rogue nation acquiring a small nuclear bomb and terminating a precarious peace. And what part of the world to set such a drama in but a region where animosity and competition has been brewing for decades... India and Pakistan.

After explaining the hierarchy and rules covering career advancement in the coveted diplomatic corp of Washington, Palmer gives us Sam Trainer, one of those who not only didn't make the cut despite his acknowledged expertise at the State Department but was pushed out into the private sector. It's what happens to diplomats with political shortcomings.

Having lost his wife and now raising daughter Lena, he's in the employ of consulting firm Argus Systems as an analyst, part of their Cassandra Project which filters raw captured data relative to anything nuclear coming out of South Asia and streaming to the CIA. How this leads to a case of propaganda and misinformation is something only an experienced diplomat would likely think of as a plausible set of circumstances to discover a furtive plot to foment war. This is artful cloak and dagger material.

Sam has a secret. Her name is Vanalika Chandra, and she's in the important political strata at the Indian embassy in D.C. Palmer doesn't use this relationship as the overused tool of betrayal but, rather, draws with it a picture of two people who care very much about each other, which is a fine illustration of how a superior writer doesn't need to depend on worn out cliches.

One day, while going through phone call transcripts that NSA picked up, Sam comes across one about a conspiracy to end the touchy and unpredictable belance of peace between India and Pakistan; something about a nuclear device; And one of the plotters accused in the report... Vanalika.

Only, it's phony. Sam instantly recognizes it as false since he and Vanalike were together on the purported date and time of that call. But, what's really bothersome about this is that there's someone in a high enough place to plant something with the express purpose to inflame two countries within NSA data.

Sam travels to Mumbai where he turns on his investigative skills, with Lena making like a Watson and scaring us with her lack of caution. One day, the man behind the conspiracy pays her a visit and a little later the timer on the nuclear device starts counting down.

Palmer knocks us out with this kind of ungrounded tension, suspense and high regard for credible and engaging characters -- all fully realized with traits and styles that amount to individual depth. Palmer has what it takes for interest in him and his work to build. A little more action than David Ignatius; a lot more clarity than John le Carre',

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