Book Review: Codename Aphrodite, by Charles S. Faddis
By Joseph Fitsanakis* | intelNews | 08.16.2011
MOST INTELNEWS REGULARS KNOW Charles S. Faddis as the former head of the US National Terrorism Center‘s WMD Unit. His 20-year career as a CIA operations officer, with posts in South Asia, Near East and Europe, arguably culminated in 2002, when he led a CIA team into Iraq to help prepare the ground for the US invasion. He documented this in his 2010 book (co-authored with Mike Tucker) Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War Inside Iraq. Following his 2008 retirement, Faddis, who was CIA Chief of Station in his last overseas tour, frequently comments on intelligence matters. He took a stance against the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program (but objected to a government investigation), and has penned hard-hitting critiques of American intelligence culture and practices, most notably in his 2009 exposé Beyond Repair: The Decline and Fall of the CIA. His latest creation, Codename Aphrodite (Orion, 2011), is a gritty novel set in the backstreets of Athens, Greece, where a former CIA clandestine operations officer goes after November 17, one of the world’s most active Marxist terrorist groups.
Bill Boyle and his wife, Sarah, are both clandestine officers in the CIA’s European Division. Sarah, who is pregnant with their child, is brutally killed by November 17 after a CIA operation in pursuit of the group goes horribly wrong. Haunted by his wife’s murder, which he witnessed, Boyle quits the Agency and soon ends up as a permanent fixture in a depressing Mexican beach bar. Things take an unexpected turn, however, when political winds change in Greece. Petros Salamis, an ascending Athenian politician and aspiring Prime Minister, contacts Boyle with an irresistible offer: a hefty monetary reward and the satisfaction of revenge for his wife’s death in exchange for returning to Greece and eradicating November 17. Armed with forged identity papers, a good ‘legend’, and a seemingly endless expense account, Boyle returns to the streets of Athens in 1990, in search of his wife’s murderers. He re-initiates contact with two of his Greek assets, including Eleni Paraskevi (cover name Aphrodite), a former November 17 member who was cut lose by the organization due to her drug addiction. This forms the setting for a tense storyline, packed with compelling three-dimensional characters and numerous unpredictable twists and turns.
Faddis’ narrative rests on non-fictional elements; the latter include the target of Bill Boyle’s freelance op: Revolutionary Organization 17 November (N17). One of Europe’s most active ‘new-left’ urban guerrilla groups, N17 operated from 1975 until 2002, when it voluntarily disbanded following the arrest of several of its members. Its feud with the United States government began on December 23, 1975, when —in its first spectacular strike— the group assassinated Richard Welch, the CIA’s Athens Station Chief. By June 15, 2000, when it murdered British military attaché Stephen Saunders, N17 had conducted over 100 operations, including the killing of three US servicemen and several foreign diplomats. Since Welch’s killing, N17 became a major focus of the CIA’s counterterrorist operations in Europe, and remained so for almost 30 years.
Faddis’ convincing treatment of N17 gives the sense of someone who has spent considerable time studying the group —probably on a professional capacity. His description of Athens, Greece’s grimy, overpopulated capital, is equally realistic, and is one of the stylistic elements that make Codename Aphrodite genuinely captivating. Faddis’ Athens is attractive, but not in the romantic sense. It is presented as a polluted southern European metropolis, a bustling hub that brings together corrupt government officials, street-smart vendors, Eastern European prostitutes, and the obligatory groups of Japanese tourists wandering through the urban smog. Readers are presented with a series of gritty vignettes of daily life in Athens, a city of lunatic drivers, waiters that “work as and when they desire”, and well-groomed, oversexed men, usually the products of “a spoiled upbringing in a country where little boys [are] generally indulged rather than disciplined”. Through these penetrating depictions, Faddis sees through the picturesque Greece of glossy travel brochures, and takes his readers to places like Exarcheia, Athens’ anarchist quarter; the now-faded Kolonaki, once the city’s swankiest area; as well as the countless rembetika joints, watering holes specializing in a type of Greek blues music brought over in the 1920s by immigrants from Asia Minor.
The depiction of Greece in Codename Aphrodite fits the country’s current economic predicament, brought about by chronic economic mismanagement,permeating corruption and political nepotism. Faddis’ treatment of the Greek government (which “cannot find its ass with both hands and a flashlight”) and its politicians is merciless: the aspiring Prime Minister who hires Boyle, is called Salamis (sausage, in Greek), while a corrupt, senior government minister, who is assassinated by N17, is named Andreas Vlakas (idiot). Interestingly, his critique of Greek government corruption contains the controversial view —often vocalized by American critics of Greek counterterrorist policy— that N17 managed to survive for three decades by maintaining clandestine connections with senior Greek politicians.
But Faddis saves some of the most uncomplimentary language in his narrative for the CIA itself. Resisting the sudden entry of a loose cannon like Boyle on its turf, the Agency’s station in Athens tries to drive him away by bribing him. After he turns them down, saying he is “not their boy any more”, Boyle becomes the target of a persistent CIA surveillance operation, ordered all the way from Langley. Boyle deeply mistrusts “those assholes” at the Agency: after being told by a former colleague that the CIA “always takes care of its own”, he thinks: “you lying sack of shit”. Though never explicitly discussed in Codename Aphrodite, the reader is left with an impression of a troubling collision between the shady field activities of clandestine officers and their personal moral codes. When asked why he recruited a drug addict as an asset, Boyle replies: “Mother Teresa was busy”. His former boss in Cyprus was “sleeping with his best friend’s wife” while “paying newspaper reporters to write anti-Communist Party propaganda in France”.
And yet, while deeply critical of the CIA, Boyle routinely relies on an array of genuine spy craft methods he learned at the Agency to stay alive in the streets of Athens. His approach to sources and methods offers small glimpses of a clandestine operative’s life. His emphasis on his sources’ motives, and his “aversion to hearing the letters ‘CIA’ said aloud” are undoubtedly real. Upon being presented with an envelope full of cash by the CIA, in exchange for walking away from his freelance op, Boyle knows from experience that it is “in hundred dollar bills”. While on a boat, he puts a cell phone into a small waterproof bag, ties it to a life jacket, and throws it overboard in the Mediterranean sea, in order to fool American geo-locators. He constantly relies on his Agency training, whether by naturally looking behind him at regular intervals and cataloging “everyone and everything on the street”, or by relying on instinct to respond to highly unstructured situations in the field. Clearly, Boyle has “not survived this many years on the street by being sloppy”.
Codename Aphrodite is not flawless. Faddis’ compelling narrative could do with another round of editorial brush-over, and he often misspells Greek words as perhaps someone who is familiar with Greek in a phonetic, rather than a linguistic, sense —he writes “Venizolos”, instead of Venizelos, and “Panagiou mou”, instead of “Panagia mou” (Virgin Mary). Moreover, his treatment of N17, though mostly accurate, contains some degree of Hollywoodization: N17 operatives come across as too drone-like; and was it really necessary for the N17 leader to also be a child pornographer? There are also a few minor inaccuracies that could vex some of Faddis’ more demanding readers: for instance, he describes N17 as “the most lethal terrorist organization in Europe”. But if N17 was really “the most lethal terrorist organization in Europe”, then what would one call groups like the Ulster Volunteer Force, or Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, both of which are responsible for hundreds of deaths in Northern Ireland, Spain and France? Also, even though Greeks can claim to have invented entire lists of things and ideas, a capital “A” in a circle is not really “the sign of the Greek Anarchist movement”. It is the sign of the world anarchist movement.
Despite its limited flaws, Codename Aphrodite should not be missed by devotees of intelligence fiction, especially those attracted to reality-based storylines that unfold in convincing historical contexts. There is really no substitute for intelligence fiction written by actual former spies. And Faddis proves that “old training dies hard”.
* Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis has been writing and teaching on the politics of intelligence for over ten years. His areas of academic expertise include the institutional analysis of the intelligence community; the interception of communications; and the history of intelligence with particular reference to international espionage during the Cold War. He is co-founder and Senior Editor of intelNews.org. His latest writings for intelNews.org are available here.