Dexter Filkins is hardly the first person to use a crime and its procedural aftermath to tell a story of corruption – such tales have dotted the landscapes of film and fiction for most of a century. But in our latest Notable Narrative, “The Journalist and the Spies,” he probes the all-too-real murder of reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad in an attempt to trace the sordid relations between the Taliban, Pakistan and the CIA.

Filkins backs away from pure narrative to employ the language of an investigator – a language familiar to anyone who has ever watched prime-time television:

The previous afternoon, Shahzad had left his apartment, in the placid F-8/4 neighborhood of Islamabad, and driven toward Dunya studios, about five miles away. It was five-thirty; the television interview was scheduled for six. According to a local journalist who talked to a source in one of Pakistan’s cell-phone companies, Shahzad’s phone went dead twelve minutes later.

We are not taken deep inside the last moments of Shahzad’s life; rather, Filkins keeps us at a slight distance. We see the story through Filkins’ eyes and follow along as he assembles his facts. He had known the journalist, a little, and makes clear that he both respected and had misgivings about the dead man’s work.

The restraint of Filkins’ approach creates a boomerang effect, rendering the clinical details as they are gathered that much more distressing: Shahzad’s body, we learn from one source, was found stuck in a grate atop a dam with “his tie and shoes still on.” An autopsy later discloses ruptures of his lungs and liver. Information that something very like a metal rod was used to beat Shahzad is introduced during speculation about whether his executioners intended to kill him or were just engaged in intimidation.

Distinctions like these hardly matter to the reader in the face of the suffering and price paid by Shahzad, but they do matter in a larger sense. And it is this larger arena to which Filkins moves as he builds a case that passes through the long shadow of American ties to Pakistan and the activities of U.S. intelligence agencies abroad.

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