It’s 1961 and Simon Weeks, a publisher in New York, is arriving in Moscow to work with a writer whose book he will edit. The author is his older brother Frank, a former CIA agent who defected to Moscow after a career spent spying as a double-agent for the KGB. Frank’s defection cost Simon his job in the State Department, and also cost him his respect for the big brother he always idolized. Even more than the memoir, this trip will allow Simon to come to grips with the reasons for his brother’s betrayal, of family as much as country. Would that it were that simple. Simon is thrust into the centre of the exiled spy community, including the famous Guy Burgess as well as lesser figures. And Frank’s wife Jo has not adjusted to exile, especially since the death of their young son. Frank’s KGB minder is ever present and, inevitably, it turns out Frank has a slightly different agenda than simply getting that book published.
I’m surprised sometimes that Joseph Kanon isn’t mentioned more when we talk about the top writers about espionage, particularly since his novels approach the field in off-beat ways. Certainly Defectors is a perfect example of that, because as it moves along at a quick, almost claustrophobic pace–reflecting Simon’s reactions to Moscow–it becomes a story of bluff and double bluff, of almost constant betrayal, and of very few people being exactly what they seem. What would you expect from a small community of defectors, of people who’ve lived double (or worse) lives?
The twisty story is gripping, but the novel’s real strengths lie in its setting: not so much Moscow as the early Sixties, just before the Cuban missile crisis, with the Cold War at full throttle. Kanon shows us his exiles through a very telling filter of contemporary attitudes, both personal and political. And most of all, through the bonds of relationships–family ties which tug at both the brothers, and which pull the twists in unexpected directions right to the end. This may be Kanon’s best book yet.
Defectors by Joseph Kanon
Simon & Shuster ISBN 9781471162640 £8.99
This review appeared first at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets