The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.
One of the greatest crimes against a country is treason, spying for the enemy. A recent brilliantly written espionage book, Defectors, by Joseph Kanon, is both fast paced and realistic. This Cold War thriller shows the moves and plays as if the characters are in a chess game. Beyond that it emphasizes the human side, what it is like for family members of a traitor, as well as the motivations of someone who is willing to betray and lie to everyone.
He noted, “I read about Kim Philby, a high-ranking member of British intelligence who was a Soviet agent. He defected in 1963 after working for the KGB. I had the book take place before his defection because later he became disillusioned and I did not want him to be a factor. Although I made the main character Frank’s apartment right around the corner from where Philby lived. I wanted the defectors I wrote to be ideological, those that converted to Communism in the 1930s as an act of faith. They thought they were changing the world for the better, now in the frontal lobe, Moscow. This was the high summer for the Soviet experiment, before the admittance that it was a big mistake. Soviet prestige was at an all time high with Sputnik and the consumer level improving along with the US embarrassments of Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot captured, and the Bay of Pigs fiasco.”
Taking place in 1961 Moscow, during the height of the Cold War, readers learn about the history within a fascinating plot. It becomes obvious very early on that within Russian society is a community of western defectors. While having privileges they are never trusted, living a life sentence in protective custody. Scenes are very authentic, giving a glimpse of Russian society, showing how the KGB has a city within a city including its own apartment complex and hospital.
It is also the story of two brothers, Frank and Simon Weeks. In the late 1940s Frank was exposed as a Soviet Union spy while working for the OSS, the predecessor to the CIA. This notorious high-profile American defector escaped to Russia, now working for the KGB. Fast-forward twelve years where he has decided to write a memoir approved by the Soviet Spy agency. He has sold the rights to M. Keating & Sons, a prominent publishing company currently run by his brother Simon. In order to edit the manuscript he decides to visit Frank and his sister-in-law, Joanna, a former flame. After an awkward reunion the three settle into reliving old times until Frank delivers a bombshell, he wants to defect back to the US, using his wife as bait. The suspense ratchets up and never stops as both brothers play a cat and mouse game. Nothing is, as it appears to be on the surface. Kanon does a great job of having the tension come through in the thoughts, motives, and minds of Frank and Simon, leaving the reader to wonder who can and cannot be trusted.
Frank is still the charmer who makes those around him relaxed and comfortable. He appears to be the protective older brother Simon had lost twelve years earlier after the defection. But he is also seen as the leopard who has not changed his spots and still capable of treachery. Simon begins to wonder if Frank is betraying him again, only this time the stakes could be higher.
Kanon did not “want to make Frank a sympathetic character. He was someone perfectly willing to betray his country and family. He is a narcissist. I wrote him as someone having a loyalty to Communism and the KGB. He totally has bought into the myth that they are efficient, knowledgeable, successful, and a superior elite group. Yet, he loves his brother Simon and vice versa. Simon adored his older brother Frank even though he always seemed to involve him in schemes and persuaded him to do things against Simon’s better interest. This is why their parents sent Simon to a different school, to get away from Frank’s influence. It appears to be about the good brother versus the bad brother. Simon had a conscience, while Frank appears to be amoral.”
This gripping story tells of a family divided over Cold War loyalties. Kanon weaves a masterful theme of betrayal, treachery, and lies. With Russia once again in the headlines it is the perfect book to understand the motivations of the different players, including a KGB that nurtured Putin.