FIREBIRD by James Carroll New York: E.P. Dutton 437 pp. $18.95 `SPYCATCHER'' by Peter Wright reveals an ongoing war of wits, technical wizardry, and highly skilled men and woman working within a zone of deception piled upon deception. ``Firebird'' by James Carroll is written within this rich vein. The twists and turns of the plot portray the seamy side of intelligence work and the ethical questions that arise. To be sure, ``Firebird'' has many of the elements that make spy novels entrancing for readers. The actual events and people of 1949, including Sen. McCarthy and the Rosenbergs (convicted of espionage for selling nuclear secrets to the Soviets), are woven convincingly into its fabric. The stakes are high. The Soviets have just detonated an atomic weapon. The FBI, headed by J. Edgar Hoover, is being pressured by President Truman to track down whoever has stolen the most tightly held secret in US history. A young idealistic FBI agent, Christopher Malone, with a talent for opening locks, is brought on as part of an elaborate plan to find the enemy agents.
But agent Malone is a neophyte from Kansas City. He justifiably feels way over his head, struggles to see the obvious and remains one step behind the experienced pros.
In awe of Hoover since childhood (as a boy he scratched the initials FBI on the headboard of his bed), this son of a locksmith is the embodiment of the words inscribed on the FBI seal: Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity. Malone's search for the truth commences when his supervisor's reaction and explanation of events leave him unconvinced and haunted.
His uneasiness turns to alarm as he becomes convinced that a Russian mole is in place manipulating events. Malone trusts neither his supervisor nor his trainer and colleague. His naive views of intelligence work, right and wrong, and the organization he works for take a bruising, but he is compelled to take steps that prove painful.
An essential element of a good spy novel is the author's ability to lead readers through a maze of events. Only in the last pages of this book does the extent of subterfuge become apparent. It is more complicated, involved, and disheartening than the young agent wants to contemplate.
James Carroll's six previous novels present a moral concern; ``Firebird'' is no exception. Carroll does an admirable job of building moral dilemma. The stench of blackmail and details of shattered lives cast their pall. Agents have their own personal reasons for working against or for US interests, reasons and methods which can plunder morality, the law - the very reason for the FBI's existence.
The question that lingers is: How can the FBI, a guardian of democracy, achieve its goals in the shadow world of espionage without sacrificing the ideals of justice it is sworn to protect?