There’s nothing like a good thriller once in a while. But the qualifier matters. Cardboard characters, contrived suspense, and Hollywood cliff-hangers won’t cut it. But an espionage novel that hinges on character rather than non-stop action and that provides glimpses of an unfamiliar or exotic world is a great treat. Joseph Kanon’s latest, Defectors, fits the bill nicely.
In 1970, I traveled to Scandinavia and the Soviet Union with a group sponsored by a left-wing lawyers’ association. After stops in Stockholm, Helsinki, Leningrad, and Moscow, we flew to Central Asia, where we visited Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara. A lovely, radical sixty-ish couple wasn’t on the plane to Uzbekistan with us and didn’t rejoin the group when we returned to Moscow before flying home. We were told there was a medical issue although both had seemed hale and hearty in the early going. Knowing their background, I couldn’t help but wonder if they had defected. Is that how it would have been done in 1970? I have no idea. But I have thought about them occasionally and tried to imagine what it might have been like for them if they had indeed stayed in the Soviet Union. It’s safe to say that their lives would not have been like those of the defectors in this gripping novel.
Frank Weeks wasn’t an ordinary American Communist when he and his wife fled to Moscow in 1949. He had been a high-ranking intelligence officer about to be exposed as a spy for the Soviet Union after an operation that went disastrously wrong. Twelve years later, still working for the KGB, Frank has written a memoir that “the Service” will allow to be published, and his brother Simon has been approved to come to Moscow to edit the book, only to learn on arrival that Frank has an ulterior motive for this visit. There will be plenty of thriller-worthy action to come – deception, murder, betrayal, CIA and KGB operations and counter-operations – but the real pleasures of the novel are in the lives of Frank and Jo Weeks and their “friends” – the community of former British and American spies who are spared the privation of ordinary Russians but not the grim reality of the workers’ paradise they believed in…the spacious but threadbare apartment, the musty dacha, the faded elegance of the Bolshoi, the privileged access to groceries, the vodka-soaked nights at the bar in the Metropol, the ever-present KGB minder…
Frank and Simon were close as boys and followed similar career paths, Frank into the CIA, Simon into the State Department. But was Frank using his brother, extracting valuable bits of information in casual conversation over their regular dinners? After Frank’s betrayal and twelve years apart, the relationship between the brothers is tense but still intimate as Simon vacillates between trusting and being wary of his charming brother, and he is still drawn to Jo, with whom he had a brief dalliance before she met and married Frank. The fine supporting cast features a woman who once smuggled atomic secrets over a border in her hat, the lonely widow of a brilliant scientist, assorted Brits with assorted motives (including a couple of real-life spies), and Boris – the factotum who is always on hand and always listening.
Defectors is Kanon’s eighth novel. The others are similarly satisfying, particularly his first, Los Alamos. It’s a murder mystery with a compelling historical overlay as J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of scientists in New Mexico race to develop the atomic bomb in the final days of World War II. There’s no better way to lose sleep and absorb some modern history than a Joseph Kanon novel.
Abby is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people: family and Red Sox fans. She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.
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