The Embassy House

While the Phoenix Program became notorious as a CIA-orchestrated assassination program, its official objective was to improve the collection of intelligence. Captain Jake Gulliver is no stranger to clandestine operations, having earned the nickname “Sandman” for his ruthless abilities as an assassin.

The novel’s central episode is a case of mistaken identity, in which an innocent Vietnamese is tortured to death. The fact that the Phoenix operatives committed a horrendous mistake comes to light, and the local Hoa-Hoa religious sect organizes protest demonstrations. Not wanting to send in South Vietnamese troops to quell the uprising, since that would embarrass the Saigon government as well as the Phoenix Program, the CIA officer in charge decides to comply with the protesters’ demands and arrange for the “accidental” deaths of the three interrogators, one of whom is an American. Captain Gulliver is chosen for this assignment, but he begins to have reservations about being part of a coverup which includes executing an American without trial, for reasons of political expediency.

As a former NEWSWEEK bureau chief in Saigon, Proffitt brings an insider’s know-how to this tense and often bloody tale, including lingo such as “technical interviews” (lie detector tests) and a favorite maneuver called “snatch ’n’ snuff.” Not for the faint-hearted, the depiction of torture is appropriately graphic, including electroshock methods and other horrid procedures involving the use of snakes.

A typically fine characterization is Bennett Steelman, the CIA top man with aristocratic breeding who calls women colleagues “old girl” and treats the whole Phoenix Program like some kind of upper-crust polo match. His nickname, “Razor,” reflects his ability to perform the necessary dirty work.

Overall, this is an excellent novel, combining the best elements of wartime intrigue and combat action with fascinating characterizations of those who play the deadliest of games.