A marine stationed at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, winds up dead under mysterious circumstances, and the top brass isn't all that eager to discover the cause.
No, it's not the sequel to "A Few Good Men"; it's Dan Fesperman's latest thriller The Prisoner of Guantánamo. The Baltimore Sun journalist has made a successful career moonlighting as a tour guide to Hot Spots of the World, with well-reviewed stops in Afghanistan ("The Warlord's Son") and Bosnia ("Small Boat of Great Sorrows").
Once again, Fesperman chooses his destination based on headlines. It's hard to imagine a more topical setting than the detainee prison at Guantánamo Bay, or a more controversial job for a hero than that of interrogator. Although Fesperman is careful to make sure that FBI special agent Revere Falk (seriously, where do they get these names?) doesn't foul his hands with hoods or truncheons.
In fact, when we first meet him, Falk is lecturing a CIA operative about the futility of abusing prisoners. "Interrogation is overcoming resistance through compassion.... Maybe if you guys would stop stripping 'em naked with the room at 40 degrees you'd figure that out." (For Falk, the Happy Meal is the tool of choice, one he has employed with some success on his subject, a Yemeni teen named Adnan who may have ties to Al Qaeda.)
But Falk's interrogation work is put on hold when a dead marine washes ashore on the Cuban side of the beach.
Then an old friend shows up as part of a spy-catching team that's worrisomely interested in both Falk and his lady love, a captain and fellow interrogator. While Falk is catching up on old times, Adnan is spirited away to the "ghost" camp, where bad things happen to detainees who don't talk, and Falk finds questionable events in his past – such as an ill-advised sightseeing trip to Havana – catching up with him.
After a catchy beginning, the plot becomes unnecessarily cumbersome, and an overload of exposition causes the pages to thud to a stop. (Around page 120, things got so slow that I kept fantasizing that Jack Nicholson was going to leap out of the bushes and bellow, "You can't HANDLE the truth.")
Also, Fesperman really ought to lighten up on the foreshadowing: Significant passages might as well be printed in neon with the soundtrack from "Law & Order" supplying a hearty "cha-chung" for emphasis.
What saves "Prisoner of Guantánamo" is Fesperman's ability to report details like the grass being "toasted, crunchy. Like walking on burned coconut" and suicidal prisoners being classified as "SIBS," short for "manipulative self-injurious behavior." (The book was obviously written before three detainees succeeded in committing suicide in June, but the tone feels spot-on, even if slightly out of date.)
When an MP gets surly with Falk early on, he remarks that "they reserved a special scorn for those who spoke Arabic, as if it was a mild form of betrayal."
These types of observations offer readers valuable insights into daily life at one of America's most closed communities. The plot even offers a brief stop at Camp Iguana, where a handful of child prisoners are held under the mostly caring watch of a teacher/reservist.
That feeling of verisimilitude makes the existence of Camp Echo – where the "ghosts" are subjected to "envelope-pushing" procedures – even more appalling. (It's worth noting that Fesperman is careful not to be too graphic, or to vary from abuses already reported in the press.)
What Fesperman contends hasn't been widely reported is Falk's weary observation that the "deepest and darkest secret" held at Guantánamo is that its usefulness as an information-gathering tool is running out: "The more the daily millstone of blab turned, the less it produced. The bulk of Camp Delta's population had been tapped out for months.... Yet this was the one conclusion never mentioned in the reports that reached the public."
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.