Book Review: The Good Spy – Kai Bird

The Good Spy cover

Title: The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames
Author: Kai Bird
ISBN: 9780307889751
Pages: 448
Release Date: May 20, 2014
Publisher: Crown
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography, History
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 out of 5


Robert Ames was a CIA operative who had a unique understanding of and interest in Middle East history and culture. Over the course of his career, he carefully cultivated relationships with key players in the region—including members of the PLO—and brought a unique insight into its difficult politics. Sadly, Ames was one of 63 people killed in the seemingly forgotten terrorist attacks against the American embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983. This biography brings Ames to life and fills in many of the gaps in his career.

Snapshot Review:

As readable as any spy thriller, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames is a story of the making of the present-day Middle East, told through the prism of a biography. Though readers might feel they don’t get to know the man well, they’ll understand his legacy and mourn for what might have been if Ames hadn’t been so tragically killed.

Full Review:

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames is billed as a biography, but really it is so much more than that. This is a history of the making of the modern Middle East, told through the prism of one man. No, it doesn’t deal with every issue that we face today, but Ames was remarkably influential and important, given how little his name is known today. This biography shows every area that Ames touched and helps the reader understand the origins of such groups as the PLO, Hezbollah, and al Qaeda.

Bird spares no detail in The Good Spy. The amount of research he must have undertaken is extraordinary; he isn’t afraid to name names when it comes to blunders and mistakes, but he’s always careful to back up his claims with multiple sources. It’s hard to argue with the tightly written narrative that Bird presents. For a biography, this book is also very readable. Perhaps because of its bearing on modern day politics, it’s easy to race through this book; it’s as gripping as any political thriller, especially if you aren’t familiar with that period in history.

Ames the man is a little more difficult in The Good Spy. Bird had plenty of political sources, but despite the fact that this is a biography of the man, readers don’t really get to know Ames personally. I ended this book blown away by Ames’ legacy and the amazing history presented within the book, but I still felt disconnected from who Robert Ames really was. It’s understandable, as Bird could only work with the sources available to him, but still worth mentioning.

In the end, The Good Spy left me feeling bereft, wondering what the Middle East would look like now if Ames hadn’t been killed. With Bird’s assistance in his narrative, the reader suspects that it would have possibly been a better place, with more chances at peace. Ames’ legacy is one that should be remembered, even if it occurred under the cloak of clandestine services, and Bird does a great job editorializing what Ames accomplished and what he left behind with his death.

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  1. trish422 says:

    This sounds like one of those books that reminds you of how individual people can make a difference.

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