A Body, a Cover-Up and a Dangerous Quest in Cairo

THE LOST AMERICANS, by Christopher Bollen

Cate Castle is pretty lost. Breaking up with a wonderful boyfriend she can’t stop cheating on, scrambling for an affordable studio in Manhattan and charming rich donors for an arts nonprofit, she seems perfectly cast as the smart, sexy, not-as-tough-as-she-thinks protagonist of … a witty, steamy New York satire? A soul-searching novel of self-discovery? Maybe, if it were called “The Lost Upper East Siders.” Instead, in “The Lost Americans,” Christopher Bollen sends Cate out of town and deep into Graham Greene territory, after Cate’s brother, Eric, dies in Cairo of an apparent suicide.

Eric Castle was a weapons tech for Polestar, a corporation that supplies missiles to repressive governments. Had the guilt, the loneliness or the drinking caught up to him? What about the disturbing page from a diary, referring to the sexual abuse of young refugees? Cate doesn’t believe it.

She and Eric had drifted apart, their only contact the random postcards he sent from all over the world, and things with the rest of her family had never been great. Her deadbeat dad is quick to pop up now that there is a wrongful death settlement in the works, and her harried, depressed mom has remarried. When a smarmy P.R. lady and an arrogant corporate honcho offer to pay the funeral costs, Cate is sure of a cover-up. But of what, and by whom? The company? The Egyptian Army? The U.S. Embassy?

The mystery deepens with a disturbing visit from the wife of Eric’s colleague, who is so paranoid he refuses to meet Kate himself; apparently Polestar sees and hears all. The only way to send a private message seems to be by postcard, and Eric’s last one, an inscrutable Jamaican beach greeting weirdly sent from Cairo, hints at something beyond emotional disturbance.

Even when an independent autopsy, paid for by Cate, throws doubt on the suicide verdict, her family decides to settle: Her stepfather, Wes, is critically ill; their home is a shambles; and Cate’s younger stepsister, the “golden child,” needs money for college. They can be millionaires thanks to Polestar. Nevertheless, Cate heads to Cairo, utterly unprepared to function even as a tourist, much less as a detective or spy.

Soon, Cate is encountering just the kinds of characters we expect, and hope, to meet. A scary man with a birthmark who immediately tries to kidnap her. A louche, handsome arms trader in a rumpled seersucker suit. Rich executives who sit in penthouses talking about all the good they are doing the world while selling death to dictators. Cate’s only ally is Omar, the nephew of one of her uptown arts donors; he’s back home in Cairo after grad school in London, sort of looking for a job while dreaming of joining his boyfriend in California.

If Cate wants in, Omar wants out: The regime’s brutal crackdown has made life as a gay man in Egypt a nightmare. He is already living the secret life of a spy with a hidden identity. Cate offers to help with a visa — though she doesn’t really know how — and soon Omar is risking everything for her.

A few of the early plot turns are fairly guessable for someone who’s read a lot of thrillers (not Cate apparently), but as the story accelerates toward its finale, it veers into uncharted territory, picking up momentum and emotional power, culminating in a series of rapidly escalating revelations and dramatic reversals that are gripping and genuinely moving. While “The Lost Americans” begins in the heady mood of a fish-out-of-water adventure, the ending is sobering, shocking and, I suspect, all too realistic.

David Gordon is the author, most recently, of “The Wild Life.” His novel “The Pigeon” is forthcoming in June.

THE LOST AMERICANS | By Christopher Bollen | 333 pp. | Harper/HarperCollins Publishers | $30

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