The Unexpected Spy

by Tracy Walder

“‘I was at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on September 11, 2001. As an operative in counterterrorism, I was on the team of people who were supposed to save America from men like Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Mohammed Atef. I’d known their names when most others didn’t. In fact, as a news junkie since high school, I’d been thinking about bin Laden, in particular, for years. So, I’d expected more from myself. While America was focused on the disbanded Soviet Union and the drug wars in Central America, I was studying images of deserts in the Middle East. I watched and marked where terrorism was being grown and cultivated, new branches continuously sprouting like a well-pruned tree. I’d memorized the rocky, dry landscape. I’d memorized the faces of men who were hiding in reinforced, serpentine caves or sparsely furnished safe houses. I knew where they were. And I thought I knew where they were going.

I should have seen it coming.

But I didn’t.”

Ratings & Reviews

Book Grade: A

The Unexpected Spy is a both fascinating and refreshing. The active life of a CIA spy and the terrorist plots that Tracy routinely works to foil are front and center in this book. She is intelligent, strong, and determined – a great example of all that one would expect from a CIA agent. The Unexpected Spy, however, dives into more than just her career. It follows her life as she finds herself and grows into the confident, capable role model that she is today.

I appreciated the conversational tone – the unbelievable escapades and compelling memories that Tracy shares make the book feel like you are having an intimate chat with a close friend (who has led a really cool life). There is a level of frankness and approachability that is hard to come by in such action packed memoirs, but Tracy’s honesty makes this book a totally engaging read from beginning to end.

The Unexpected Spy is has a lot of sections redacted because they contain information that is sensitive to CIA operations – this can be annoying or appealing depending upon your reading preference. Also, I appreciated the stories that showed how far Tracy came from the days of her youth when she was a misfit with acne. Some readers, though, may feel that she gushes too much about her appearance, her sorority, or her ability to overcome obstacles. I found these inspiring, even if they came a bit more frequently than I anticipated. All in all, though, I appreciated The Unexpected Spy for the contemporary spy story that it is, and the glimpses of what life for a woman in the world of post-9/11 CIA really is like.

Movie Rating: R

The Unexpected Spy is not truly an aggressive story, but it has a few scenes involving foul language, gruesome images, and tense military situations. Because of this, I think that this is a read for more mature audiences. For example, there is a moment when Tracy describes an adult magazine that was prominently displayed in her sorority house; while this scene is brief, it is an example of what readers can expect from this book. Moments like this are few and far between, but they do pop up in this nonfiction work, so be prepared for them.

Even with its rare moments of mature scenes, this book reads like a thoughtful conversation with a friend. Given how challening the life of a spy can be, Tracy has done a lovely job recounting her career without being gory or over-the-top.

Would I Buy This for My Library: Yes

The Unexpected Spy won’t appeal to everyone. It is a fast-paced book about the thrilling life of a young spy and FBI agent, but it has lot of personal details which serve to humanize the author. The ideal reader will be a bit more mature, but this really is a terrific books for anyone who has gone against the odds to pursue a dream. I am so excited to add this to my library shelf!


How did a bullied teen, former sorority girl, and California girl of Jewish descent become a CIA agent tracking down terrorists around the globe? She was incredibly strong, determined, and real. In The Unexpected Spy: From the CIA to the FBI, My Secret Life Taking Down Some of the World’s Most Notorious Terrorists, Tracy Walder tells her inspiring and unbelievable story in the most approachable way.

As a teen, Tracy was confident that she would become a teacher – she was fascinated by global politics and world affairs, never backing down from a news story that would have intimidated or bored her peers. After years of feeling isolated and bullied for her appearance, her interests, and anything else that her classmates could find, Tracy enrolls in USC and quickly joins a sorority. While not the stereotypical sorority sister, Tracy found herself while taking a back seat role. Little did she know that her life would change from an on-campus recruiting event as she neared the end of college. Walking up to a table that was largely being ignored by her peers, she meets a representative from the CIA and realizes that this might be her calling – a job that allows her to use all of her knowledge of political and global events. She applies and, soon, her adventure begins.

Tracy is honest about the fact that the CIA is both exactly what she pictured and completely not what she pictured at all. Attending poison school, working with global agencies to trap terrorists and being judged for her appearance are all part of a days work. Her youth and gender serve as obstacles oftentimes, and Tracy finds that she frequently has to work harder with international agents in order to prove her qualifications. Her relentless pursuit of terrorists and those who wish to destroy lives all across the globe is inspiring and thrilling. Tracy refuses to back down during interrogations or in unknown locales. After years of hunting down enemies, Tracy opts to slow down a bit and joins the FBI. There, she encounters obstacles that she never imagined and sees things that baffle and perplex her. Nevertheless, she refuses to stop if it means taking one more criminal off the streets.

With unwavering frankness, Tracy Walder offers a behind-the-scenes look at working for government agencies and tells her story in a way that will be particularly inspiring to anyone who has questioned themselves because of the words or actions of others. Her strength is undeniable and her honesty is refreshing.

Book Talk Questions:

  1. Why does Tracy talk about floppy baby syndrome? What does this suggest about her nature?
  2. What was the CIA interview and vetting process like? How did the lie detector test go?
  3. How was the information that Tracy found on the 9/11 team used? How did she feel about this?
  4. What surprised you most about other agencies in foreign countries? What surprised Tracy and what frequently frustrated her in her efforts to track down terrorists?
  5. Why did Tracy leave the CIA? What did she find when going through training at “the farm”?
  6. How did Tracy’s experiences in the FBI and CIA shape her current career path?

A Perfect Read for Fans Of…

  • Life Undercover by Amaryllis Fox
  • The Widow Spy by Martha D. Peterson
  • Ghost Wars by Steve Coll

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