A highly entertaining spy thriller and, for me, as someone who tries to write spy novels, an important lesson in how to sustain tension and conflict – and the author does so largely without tradecraft, the apparatus of espionage, and for the most part, without any violence. Indeed, most of the novel is located in offices, as well as a few cafes, restaurants and a hotel in Washington DC.
Alma Katsu has spent her working life in the CIA, so she knows better than most what she’s writing about. I don’t know if she consciously decided not to include technical aspects of the spy’s trade, or whether the Agency’s own Pre-Publication Review Office wanted it purged. She does say in the acknowledgements that she ‘felt there were things about working in this field that people didn’t understand, especially if what they did know came from popular movies, TV shows, and books.’ She goes on to say ‘it has its dark side, too, and it’s that trade-off and the personal toll it can take that I wanted to capture…’
She has succeeded brilliantly. The pace and tension never flag. It’s full of ups and downs, unexpected twists and turns. She has concentrated on the relationship between two female CIA officers, on her characters’ feelings, on their emotions, and on how their relationships conflict with the rigid compartmentalisation essential to security in an intelligence organisation. Not the easiest thing to do, at least for me. But it’s something I will try to take on board because this is a master class in how conflict – and stories are essentially about conflict – works in any novel.
This is one of the best spy thrillers I’ve ever read – and that’s from someone who reads a lot of them finds most too improbable or boring to finish.