'The Last Man in Tehran'

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Author’s latest CIA novel ranks as his most personal to date

With nearly 20 years under his belt as an analyst for the CIA, author Mark Henshaw finds it difficult to watch movies involving the spy agency without shaking his head.

“Basically everything they put on screen is completely wrong,” said Henshaw, 47, of Virginia, laughing. “The number of people who do anything remotely close to what you see in the ‘Bourne’ and 007 movies and on ‘Alias’ is actually pretty, pretty small.”

He continued: “As an analyst, you’re basically a perpetual graduate student. You get a lot of information, you analyze it, you give briefings, those kinds of things. You don’t engage in any kind of fieldwork, so you’re not out there doing any of those kinds of things. Analysts get deployed abroad from time to time if there’s a war going on or something like that. Beyond that, it’s mostly a desk job.”

Henshaw’s latest novel, “The Last Man in Tehran” (Simon & Schuster $24.99) is his fourth to feature CIA operative Kyra Stryker, who’s been promoted to Red Cell Chief. She’s barely settled into the job when an attack on an Israeli port throws the Middle East into chaos. The Mossad – Israel’s feared intelligence agency – responds with a campaign of covert sabotage and assassination. However, evidence quickly turns up suggesting that moles inside the CIA are helping Mossad.

Convinced that Mossad has heavily penetrated the CIA’s leadership, the FBI launches a counter-intelligence investigation that threatens to cripple the Agency – and anyone who questions the official story is suspect. With few officials willing to help for fear of getting accused, Kyra turns to her mentors – now-retired Red Cell Chief Jonathan Burke and his wife, former CIA Director Kathryn Cooke – to find who’s trying to tear the CIA apart from the inside.

Henshaw spoke about creating Kyra, who debuted in “Red Cell,” his first novel. She’s not based on anyone he knows, nor is she him.

“When I sat down to write ‘Red Cell,’ I was thinking how can I write a book that would stand out from the crowd of other espionage-thriller writers? This was after 9/11. At that time, most thrillers were reading like the same book. They had the same plot: It was the CIA setting up a new black-ops unit and they’d send out Super-Rambo to kill the Lex Luthor of terrorists who has some ingenious way to collapse the world economy or take down the U.S.,” explained Henshaw, a three-time Brigham Young University alumnus.

He decided that he would not write about terrorism, nor would he make his protagonist a man – an ex-soldier from a military branch with special ops skills.

“I decided one way I could help my books stand out was wouldn’t it be interesting if the main character was, in fact, a woman?” said Henshaw. “The Agency does have women who work out in the field. I decided to make her a case officer. Rather than going out into the field, she was actually coming back from the field and she was coming back damaged…  For various reasons, she becomes an analyst but wants to get back in the field.
That’s how I came up with Kyra. She was part of this idea I had to write a book completely different from all of these counter-terrorism thrillers out there with men. I was trying to go in a different direction and I think she turned out to be an intriguing character.”

Henshaw draws upon his own experiences with the CIA’s Red Cell, a real “devil’s advocate” analysis unit created on September 13, 2001 by George Tenet, then-CIA director. Tenet authorized Red Cell’s creation to “tell me what no one else is telling me.” A Red Cell unit is designed to test the effectiveness of tactics or personnel in combat scenarios. The name was derived by an opposing force in war games during the Cold War, referencing the predominantly red flags of Communist nations, such as the former Soviet Union. In 2004, the Department of Homeland Security recruited people outside the government who think differently than its agents to participate in a Red Cell program, including best-selling novelist/University of Michigan alumnus Brad Meltzer, to brainstorm scenarios. 

“I joined the Red Cell a couple of years after it was formed, but I did work with several members of the original team. I didn’t get to work with Meltzer, which is a shame – that would have been fun,” said Henshaw.

According to Henshaw, the CIA has to vet his books before they get published.

“For everybody who ever works for the Agency, one of the first things you have to do is sign a legal agreement which follows you until the day you die. It requires you to submit anything that you worked on while at the Agency. If you want to publish it for the outside world, you have to send it to the Publications Review Board,” explained Henshaw. “They go over it and review it to see if you’re including anything that would be classified or sensitive. Everybody up to and including the former director of the Agency (has to go to the PRB)… when Tenet wrote his memoirs – he had to submit that entire thing to the PRB to get it cleared. Every book I’ve written has had to go through them, so it’ll be that way for every thriller that I write until the point that I die. They get to review it and clear it and if they want something taken out and changed, it gets taken out and changed.”

When asked about being called “the Tom Clancy of a new generation” by a reviewer, Henshaw laughed.

“Anyone who writes political espionage thrillers who says they weren’t influenced by Clancy is probably lying. The man sold way too many books and had such an impact on that genre. He really shaped what people come to expect out of those things. I was never trying to copy him. I read the reviews that stated, ‘This reads like a Clancy novel’ which I find very flattering,” he explained. “When the man was on his game, he could write some terrific books. I was never consciously trying to copy Clancy or anybody else. I don’t think that’s a smart way to go about your career as a writer – copying someone who’s already established and trying to compete with someone who’s at the top… I’m not trying to be the next Tom Clancy – I’m just trying to be me. I’m trying to write the kinds of books I enjoy. The audience I’m trying to satisfy is people that I know who’ve actually been in the intelligence world. I figure if they can read the book and say it’s fairly realistic, then I’m happy. I’m trying to make it as accurate as possible.”

When plotting “Tehran,” Henshaw wanted the antagonist to be sympathetic.

“I wanted him to be in a place emotionally where people could say, ‘Yeah, I understand how he could feel that way and how he could decide (this was the only way) to save his loved one.’ That’s where it was coming from. I just wanted to have a guy so emotionally mixed up and felt like the Agency that he worked for wasn’t going to help him and would not, in fact, help him unless it was forced to, so he decided to take action to force the Agency to face up to its mistake and have them do what was necessary to save this person,” explained Henshaw. 

“Tehran” was the most personal book Henshaw has written.

“The only time I’ve ever consciously injected into a book is actually this latest one,” he said. “There’s some elements in that book that are much more personal than anything you’ll ever find in the other books I’ve written.”
The character Matthew Hadfield’s fight to save his infant son from leukemia and his subsequent professional struggles after his child’s death are based on Henshaw’s own experiences. Henshaw’s youngest son, Adam, was diagnosed with leukemia in March 2008 when he was 18 months. Adam spent two years in hospitals, undergoing eight rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant that ultimately saved his life.

“Hadfield is essentially me. He and I share the same initials. As I was looking to write this guy’s story, which I knew was essentially my story, I asked myself: What would my life have been like if it had gone another way? Hadfield’s child dies. His wife can’t take it emotionally and she divorces him. She leaves him and he ends up clinically depressed. He goes back to the office and things do downhill. The things that happen to him are things that happened to me. Those are all real. Going back in, people don’t remember where you’ve been because you’ve been out so long and they don’t even have a desk for you. I struggled with all those same kinds of things,” said Henshaw.

He spoke of awkward encounters of people in the office who didn’t know how to respond to his situation, ultimately shunning him.

 “A lot of people don’t know what to say,” said Henshaw. “My answer I give to them now is: I appreciate you don’t know what to say. But whatever you do, don’t ignore them. Even after a successful fight with cancer, you came back feeling like you have PTSD – the stress, all the things you went through. So whatever you do to that person, don’t ignore them. Even if you just go up to them and say, ‘I’ve never been what you’ve been through, so I don’t know what you’re feeling. But if you want to talk or if there’s anything I can do to help you, please let me know.’ Do something. Don’t just ignore them. I had a bunch of people do that to me.”

All of that went into the book.

“Somebody who’s been in that place is like soldiers coming back from the field – ‘Nobody knows what I’ve been through.’ If they don’t have some kind of emotional connection with somebody, they could really, really struggle with those emotional issues. If anybody’s experienced that kind of traumatic event, even if you don’t know what they’re going through, do your best to talk to them, to connect with them, anything you can do rather than just letting them sit there and suffer in silence that way,” he explained.

Today, Adam is doing fine. In fact, during the interview, Henshaw stated he was upstairs “bugging” his siblings.

“We’re very grateful to be where we are. It was a long road. We are fortunate to be here because a lot of families never get there. A lot of families we knew struggled and struggled, then 1-2 years later their child passed away. They come out of it in one sense that they struggled and fought for nothing; they lost the fight,” said Henshaw. “We are one of the lucky ones whose child survived this, but there’s a lot of people out there who don’t have that luck. And those are the ones who really need the help… You go through your own healing process and try to recover. I don’t know what it would’ve been like if he passed away. I don’t know how you heal from that. All we can do is reach out and try to help and love those people as much as we can.”

 

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