Former officer of both the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency in the US, Alma Katsu takes you right into that world of partial information, hidden agendas, latent violence and self-interested double-dealing with her first spy thriller, Red Widow.
Lyndsey Duncan is a CIA officer whose past actions have put her under a cloud. On her first overseas assignment, she was detailed to the high-stakes Moscow Field Station, where she recruited Yaromir Popov, a high-ranking officer in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service who proved to be an astonishing asset. Then, rotated out of Russia to Lebanon, her new male colleagues – resentful? misogynistic? jealous? – seemed out to get her. She played into their hands by having an affair with a man from another clandestine service. True, he worked for MI6, and you’d think one of the ‘cousins’ would be the least worrisome lover she could have taken. So now she finds herself back at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, unsure of her future there, while an investigation drags on.
On the up side, Eric Newman, the chief of the Russia Division, has asked for her help. Apparently two double agents have gone missing in Russia – one a scientist and the other a military man. Two men with such different careers and acquaintanceship circles abruptly disappearing suggests that Russia’s security agency, the FSB, was onto them. It might also suggest that their identities were leaked by someone in the CIA.
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the bad news Eric has for Lyndsey. Her prize, Yaromir Popov, whom she regarded practically as a father, died on a flight to Washington the previous night, apparently poisoned. She later learns Popov didn’t trust his new Moscow Station handlers and was on his way to see her.
Lyndsey is shocked by these revelations, but grateful Eric is anointing her the Division’s representative on a task force to hunt for the possible mole. She has a reputation as a human lie detector, which should stand her in good stead. On the down side, she has to work with an officer from counterintelligence, which she regards as “…a dull job for dull, suspicious people.” To be sure, he appears suspicious of her from the start.
Since she’s been out of the country for several years, many of the Division staff she knew have moved on. However, she recognises one woman. Theresa Warner is a little older than Lyndsey, and they knew each other slightly in the old days. She’s also having a difficult time. Her husband was killed while conducting a sketchy Russian operation. To the Agency staff, Theresa is simply The Widow. Glances and murmurings whenever she passes. These two quasi-outsiders, Lyndsey and Theresa, form a friendship.
The extreme compartmentalisation of the Agency, particularly Lyndsey’s sensitive task, means not much job-related information can be exchanged, but author Alma Katsu doesn’t give the women any other common interests – movies, tennis, crime fiction – that they could share. As a result, the basis for their friendship is thin and feels contrived.
Katsu does what I assume is a creditable job describing operational constraints and office procedures within the CIA – who can talk to whom, when, and about what. The big reveal the women experience isn’t much of a surprise for readers of espionage fiction and what they each do with that knowledge isn’t either.
Additional plot information risks being a spoiler. Suffice it to say that, even if Lyndsey and Theresa’s actions are a tad predictable, they remain interesting characters. The bigger problem is the cardboard-thin male characters. For me, they didn’t come across as real, three-dimensional people. It’s a sharp contrast with Kate Quinn’s new novel about espionage and secrets at Bletchley Park, The Rose Code, in which I came to believe I knew the principals intimately.
Authors may worry that friends and family will think they recognise themselves among a novel’s characters. Perhaps this is something that hampered Katsu when she was writing Red Widow – that rich portraits of the kinds of people drawn to the intelligence world might be too close to real people operating in that sphere.
The bottom line is, reading Red Widow, you come away with a strong impression of what it’s like to work in a clandestine service, the resources at your disposal, those withheld from you, and the cynicism of many of the participants. However, you won’t develop a strong affinity for very many of the characters. Then again, perhaps that’s part of the game too. As Lyndsey learns, affinity leads to serious – even deadly – difficulties.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars