‘City of Secrets’ is a slow burn noir thriller that works

Author Stewart O’Nan
Author Stewart O’Nan

A little over a year ago saw the publication of Stewart O’Nan’s 15th novel, “West of Sunset,” which follows a down-on-his-luck F. Scott Fitzgerald as he attempts to revive his career and his personal life in 1930s Hollywood.

Now O’Nan, who reads at Rainy Day Books on Tuesday, is back with “City of Secrets” — also set in the mid-20th century, with a similarly defeated protagonist struggling to start over, but this time with an air of international intrigue and espionage.

Brand, a Latvian Jew who survived the concentration camps of World War II, settles in Israel shortly after the war and gets a job as a cabbie, shuttling tourists to the major Jerusalem landmarks by day. By night, he uses his cover to drive for the Jewish Resistance, who are fighting to claim independence from Britain.

“City of Secrets” is an older class of spy novel, one that owes more to the noir atmosphere and moral murk of a Graham Greene or a Raymond Chandler novel (both invoked by O’Nan as influences in an author’s note) than to the political machinations and high-action set pieces of a Tom Clancy-esque thriller.

O’Nan eschews the overhead of establishing historical context and big-picture set-up and instead focuses tightly on Brand and his ambivalence as he tries to rekindle the humanity he thought he’d lost.

He strikes up a relationship with Eva, a woman in his cell of the militia whose primary missions involve assignations with high-ranking British officials. Brand clearly likes Eva and receives comfort from her, but he’s also unable to let go of the memories of his wife, who died in the war.

As he goes on more missions, and the missions become more fraught, Brand finds himself caring more — about his work, about his colleagues and Eva, and about his place in the world.

The writing, like the plot, is stripped back and muted in a way that parallels Brand’s alienation. At times reading the book can leave the reader feeling like Brand, blindfolded and in the back of a car, driving who knows where. We don’t know what’s coming, we can’t see the characters and plots beyond this one, and that experience helps give the novel meaning.

The danger, the conflict in the story, isn’t so much the bombs or threat of arrest. It’s internal — whether Brand can start again, find purpose after losing everything, or whether he (and the world) are stuck in an endless cycle of violence and death.

“City of Secrets” is a short, slow burn of a novel that, in a way, affects the reader more like a short story.

It pulls you in just in time to make you care, then quickly sends you back out to the world a little bit wiser.

“City of Secrets,” by Stewart O’Nan (194 pages, Viking, $22)

Stewart O’Nan reading

7 p.m. Tuesday, May 3, Rainy Day Books, 2706 W 53rd St., Fairway. $22, which includes a copy of the book and two tickets.