Friday, September 21, 2018

Review of Defectors by Joseph Kanon (Atria, 2017)

Simon Weeks used to work for the State Department, but after the defection of his brother, Frank, to the Soviets in 1949 he’s been working in publishing. It’s now 1961 and Frank wants Simon’s company to publish his memoirs of his time as a spy. As the first account by a defector, one approved KGB, it would should be a welcome financial boost. The CIA are less keen for the Weeks brothers to be profiting from Frank’s treachery. Simon travels to Moscow to work on editing the manuscript with his brother, who quickly springs a surprise on him – he wants to counter-defect back to the US, taking his wife with him. Simon unwittingly finds himself playing a dangerous game in a country he doesn’t know, with two intelligence agencies and brother he doesn’t trust. But once he’s stepped over the line, the only thing to do is play the game to its conclusion.

Joseph Kanon’s stand-alone novel, The Defectors, is set in Russia in 1961 at the height of the Cold War and focuses on the relationship between two brothers – Frank, a Soviet spy who has defected to Moscow and still works for The Service (KGB), and Simon, a former State Department analyst turned publisher. Simon’s company is going to publish Frank’s memoirs, and Simon has travelled on a special visa to discuss and edit the manuscript. That means meeting for the first time in twelve years and raking over old ground, all under the watchful eye of Boris, a colonel in the KGB, plus other Service agents, and a handful of other defectors who form a loose social circle. The key hook of the story is the proposal by his brother to counter-defect, drawing the two brothers into a dangerous exit game. The strength of the story is that Kanon plays the tale in an under-stated way, focusing on the relationships between characters, the monotony and paranoia of life in the Soviet Union, the disconnected lives of defectors, and the stress of playing a duplicitous game, rather than it being an adrenaline-rushed thriller. This also works against the story at times, with the pace slowing to a crawl. There are also some jarring moments that felt like awkward plot devices and the denouement felt somewhat rushed and a little flat despite the couple of twists. Overall, an interesting spy tale that seemed to be missing a bit of intrigue and tension.

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