The Prisoner of Guantanamo by Dan Fesperman Hodder & Stoughton, $187 The best crime fiction is, like crime itself, a product of the times, set in the context of contemporary society with all its ills and unafraid to tackle tough issues. Dan Fesperman knows this well. What could be more topical or controversial than the prison complex at the US Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba? There, detainees - allegedly combatants in the so-called war on terror - are held without air conditioning or regular showers, without trial, even without charges, and reportedly subjected to relentless interrogation. Flown in from trouble spots such as Afghanistan, they're held outside US borders and deprived of the rights of those in its onshore, civilian jails. Fesperman is a Baltimore-based journalist - a former war correspondent who has covered hot spots such as the Middle East, the Gulf war and the 1994 siege of Sarajevo, the latter inspiring his first novel, Lie in the Dark. His descriptions of the Guantanamo base, the jails and the prison conditions, are horrifyingly detailed. He even provides a map, which proves invaluable. Fesperman visited Guantanamo in 2003 for the Baltimore Sun and acknowledges the help he received in writing this, his fourth thriller, from people who would rather not be named. He even quotes from The Wire, the weekly newspaper at Camp Delta, the base's main prison. Fesperman's hero, Revere Falk, is an Arabic-speaking FBI interrogator at Guantanamo. He's a former marine with a troubled upbringing who fled home as soon as he was old enough to enlist. He's portrayed as the human face of the interrogations - one who eschews the vicious tactics employed by some of his colleagues. Enjoyment of The Prisoner of Guantanamo hinges on the ability to see such a man in a heroic light. Falk becomes something of a renegade in the course of the story, refusing to toe the official line when assigned to investigate the death of a soldier washed up on the Cuban side of the coast. Against orders, he probes the death of Sergeant Earl Ludwig, discovering that the chances of nature having taken his body in the Cuban direction, in his army uniform and still with his boots on, were slim to nil. His refusal to co-operate with a whitewash at first makes his situation precarious, then makes him and his girlfriend, army interrogator Pam Cobb, targets for those wanting a cover-up. But Falk apparently has no qualms with the nature of his work, nor with the existence of the prison. The difficulty with overtly political crime fiction such as this is that it's well nigh impossible to separate the politics from the merits of the novel itself - narrative and character development, for instance. That difficulty applies both to assessing the merits of such fiction and to the reader's enjoyment of it. A story may be well written, and Fesperman knows how to tell a tale, managing a feat rare for journalist/authors - writing fiction that doesn't read like journalese. He initially becomes bogged down in explanations and a bombardment of acronyms, discussing the base's layout and the functions of its various parts. But his characters are credible, his story soon gathers pace and the tension builds. But if the reader has objections to the fundamentals - for instance, not regarding FBI agents as potential heroes; not viewing the US sanctions against Cuba as appropriate; or, particularly in this case, believing the prison at Guantanamo Bay to be a travesty that should be closed - these will tend to interfere with appreciation of the finer points of The Prisoner of Guantanamo. Total involvement in a thriller such as this requires cheering for the supposed good guy, rather than reading as a dispassionate observer or, taking a course usually doomed to disappointment: backing the opposition. For those with no such qualms, The Prisoner of Guantanamo has much to recommend it, with sufficient credible twists to maintain suspense. But those who prefer their fiction to reflect their liberal sensibilities should consider themselves warned.