Try to put yourself in the position of a retired CIA operative, returning home to his wife and son with Down syndrome (resulting in early-onset Alzheimer's), endeavoring to do his best to look after them and ensure they are provided for. Now, just to make things a little more difficult, imagine our retired spy has managed to embezzle a little under ten million dollars from his employer. Such is the premise of A Spy at Home, the first novel by Joseph Rinaldo, already published as an eBook. Mr Rinaldo explains how he is uniquely qualified to write this book, raising a daughter with Down syndrome and witnessing the effect of Alzheimer's on a family member, and indeed cryptically states that he'd prefer not to disclose the sources of his espionage-related knowledge. This intriguing combination of plot and story sounded unique and intriguing to me, so I happily accepted the author's offer to write a review.
The juxtaposition of a "tough guy" job with the emotional concerns attached with mental disability made me immediately think of Regarding Henry, penned by writer J. J. Abrams in a dim and distant era long before Lost. It's not a common combination of subjects, and surely presents the author with some difficult challenges. The author deals with these issues very well by writing the book as our retired operative's memoirs, only to be released to be read in the event of his death. In the preface, the narrator tells us that, yes, he is dead; yes, his son was a surprise; and yes, he's the one that killed his own wife. With those revelations out of the way, the book proceeds in whydunnit style, with the narrator telling us about events as and when he remembers them, indeed apologizing for his lack of strict chronology very early in the book. It's a very stark contrast between the strict mental conditioning required for his day job, and the day-to-day stresses and strains of looking after his son, whose welfare becomes more and more of a challenge as their lives go on.
The book does not go in for large amounts of descriptive passages; it is indeed intended as a memoir rather than a flowery novel, which can at times leave a very dry delivery but does, for the most part, definitely give a realistic feel and a feeling that perhaps some of the events reported have their basis in fact, written precisely as our narrator would report them, grappling with his own emotional detachment due to his job. This does result in a couple of areas where things are ambiguous; for example, it is apparent that some time passes through the story as the child Noah grows up, gets a job and goes to work, although I never quite felt sure exactly how old he was. Likewise, exactly when the story takes place seems a little unclear, although it is evidently in a near present due to the computer hackers that form an integral part of the espionage side of the story. That part of the story was also delivered in a gritty way – there was no attempt to picture the spy business as anything glamorous as in the movies, rather a day job whose employees have the same concerns as most of us, such as whether their families are eligible for benefits. The lack of description does make it a little difficult to feel for the characters; we only get to experience their situation. There are a couple of inclusions in the book which I felt did detract from the overall story. There are a few very awkward sex scenes; nothing particularly explicit, but extremely clumsy and they do not add anything to the tale – excluding them would have left the book accessible to a young teen audience which would be just as interested in the novel's parallel subjects. There are a couple of places as well where I feel the author slipped out of character for a moment and managed to let his own political viewpoint slip out, albeit briefly. I can't help feeling it is a line an editor would have removed before going to press. Overall, the writing and copy seemed good with only a couple of minor errors. I must admit, I was somewhat surprised at the pricing of the book ($9.95) on amazon.com for a first-time author.
The book does indeed raise some difficult ethical questions; we find ourselves wondering whether any amount of money would make a difference in this situation, and we are sympathizing very much with a father who, while he may be used to overthrowing foreign regimes and all sorts of covert operations, finds it ever more difficult to look after a son who recognizes him less and less and is constantly worried exactly how he will be cared for once the father passes on. Watching the story unfold as one tragedy follows another, all against the backdrop of possible discovery of the theft of the money and trying to find ways to put the money to work without raising suspicions, one feels the greatest sympathy for the characters, although curiously it is not so much for Noah and his condition, but for his father, for whom no amount of training could prepare him for the trials and tribulations he is to face as a spy, at home. It's a good story whose major strength to me is the realism of the characters dealing with very real lives without expecting the plot to magically resolve itself in the closing chapters. Mr Rinaldo's own experiences evidently do show through in the writing here.
A Spy at Home is available from amazon.com in eBook format. Mr Rinaldo has plans to release several more eBooks in the near future.(The author offered a free copy of the book in return for this review)