The Paladin, by David Ignatius***-****

David Ignatius writes reliably entertaining spy novels, and when I saw that this one was available, I hopped right on it. Big thanks go to Net Galley, Edelweiss, and W.W. Norton for the review copies. It’s for sale now.

Michael Dunne is a career operative for the CIA, and he’s sent to sniff out what appears to be an enemy intelligence service fronting as a news organization. This particular assignment is risky because it’s illegal to run surveillance on journalists, but his boss tells him that he’ll run interference for him, and like a good soldier, he goes. He does what he’s been told to do, and next thing he knows, he’s been arrested for spying on the press, and nobody at the CIA will go to bat for him. What the hell just happened? With his career in tatters, and his family torn asunder, Dunne’s only interest, upon emerging from the year he spends in prison, is vengeance. He wants to find the guy that set him up and ruin him. From there come multiple surprising twists that kept me on the edge of my seat.

My first David Ignatius book was The Director, which I won in a Goodreads giveaway in 2014. I liked it so well that I bought one of his older novels during my annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books that summer. In 2018 I read and reviewed The Quantum Spy, a title perched on my favorites shelf not only for its brilliant pacing and suspense, but also for its insightful take on the challenges faced by Asian Americans within sensitive government positions. The strong impression I received reading it is likely to blame for my being slow on the uptake this time around. I realized when I finished reading The Paladin that it wasn’t as strong as his earlier novels, but I don’t think it’s fair to judge an excellent writer against himself when rating a novel. I initially rated this book five stars because there’s still no other spy novelist whose work I like better than his…except.

There’s a serious problem with his use of gender roles here, one I am surprised not to have noticed from the get-go, because it’s so obvious. Another reviewer opened my eyes and made me ashamed of myself for not homing in on the problem, because it’s not a small one.

There are two women that play important roles in our protagonist’s life. One is the virgin, and the other is the whore. Frankly it is so obnoxious that for any other writer, I would have given a negative rating and a scathing review. I am being measured in my response because I still see this as atypical of this author’s work, and I suspect it’s a slip rather than a true reflection of his own ideas. Then too, protagonist Dunne is portrayed as a hawk with regressive attitudes, and so the value he places on his wife’s virginity when he married her may have been a deliberate choice in developing this flawed character. I surely hope so.

The second female character is the seductress that lures Dunne into a “honeypot trap,” his sole but egregious infidelity that makes his overseas behavior all the more contemptible and costs him his family. Whereas this is a classic element of a great many spy stories, both old and new, it would have been more acceptable if Ignatius had included some other female roles that were more nuanced and that fell into neither category.

It is perhaps a measure of the author’s ability to write tense, believable tales of espionage that I had to have this major flaw pointed out to me. Because of his track record, I give this story 3.5 stars and round up. I will be interested to see what he writes next time.

If you read this one, I recommend doing so critically.

Need to Know, by Karen Cleveland***


“My God, Vivian, what’s it going to take for you to trust me?”

 Need to Know is an espionage thriller written by a former CIA analyst. I read it free and early thanks to Random House and Net Galley. This book will be available to the public on Tuesday, January 23, 2018.

Our story is told in the first person by Vivian Miller, a CIA analyst with a mortgage to meet and four small children. In the course of her research she comes across the identity of someone she knows and then the whole house starts to tumble, as she makes one bad decision after another, punctuated with the occasional wise choice to heighten suspense.  Around the sixty percentile I found myself reading it for giggles as it becomes increasingly clear that our protagonist is as dumb as a box of rocks.

With this in mind, I have devised a drinking game for rowdy book clubs that meet in real life. Here are some ideas:

  • Take a drink every time Vivian refers to Matt as her “rock”.
  • Take two drinks every time she refers to Matt as their children’s “rock”.
  • Take a drink every time you run across the word “ringleader”.
  • Spin around three times and take a drink for every rhetorical question you find in the narrative.
  • Take a drink for every stereotype you see.


Spoiler alert (*snerk*): you may want to clear your calendar the day after your book club meets, because it’s going to be a rough one.

Now I understand that there may be abstainers in your drinking book club, patient souls that either really like the people in your club, or that can’t find a book club made up of tea-totters. For those people I have special instructions:

  • Take a drink when you find a well developed character.
  • Take a drink when you find a positive female role model .


Another spoiler alert: provide this second group of people with water, because otherwise they are going home thirsty.

I can also recommend this title to women that are newly divorced, mad as hell, and looking for something to throw. For these ladies, I recommend obtaining a hard copy, because you won’t want to ruin your expensive electronic devices. Before commencing with this title, remove pictures, monitors, and china from the wall where you’ll be reading. Broken glass is nobody’s idea of a fun Tuesday night.

“They’re good, the Russians.”

Newly divorced, mad-as-hell, book-throwing women that have recently divorced a Russian man may even want to pre-order a copy. I’d do that right now if I were you.

Купить книгу.

The Spy Who Never Was, by Tom Savage*****

TheSpyWhoNeverI love Savage’s work, and this title is his best to date. I got my copy free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House Alibi. You can get it January 9, 2018.

Nora Barton is our protagonist, and she is recruited by Edgar Cole as an unofficial CIA agent—she has been helpful to the Agency before—because of her physical resemblance to someone being targeted by the enemy, an enemy known as TSB.

“Edgar Cole was using her as bait: here, kitty, kitty. Now Nora was in Paris with TSB, and the two of them were playing an elaborate game of I-know-you-know-and-you-know-I-know, and Nora wondered what would happen next in their little charade.”

Nora isn’t allowed to tell her husband, who is an intelligence agent himself, but she tells him some of it anyway. I smile, knowing I would do the same. He tells her not to accept this assignment—absolutely not—but Nora doesn’t take orders from him, and she makes the decision to go.

Savage writes true thrillers. Like his other novels, this one grabs you by the hair on the first page and doesn’t let go. I am accustomed to the traditional story arc, rising toward a climax, but that’s not what we get here; instead, there’s a huge surprise around every corner. My pulse raced while I read this thing, and my blood pressure rose. There are several places in my notes throughout the book that say “Holy crap!” or, “My heart!”

Once in Paris, people start getting dead. That agent that was attacked because he was guarding her—wait a minute, was he guarding her? Nora isn’t sure who she can trust, but happily, she has a personal friend, an elderly fellow now retired from intelligence that lives in Paris. Her friend’s message to her is sobering indeed: “Go home, Mademoiselle.”

Every now and then Savage breaks up the tension for a split second with humor, and I love this. Her mentor in Paris prides himself on his English use, and he misuses idioms in ways that are charming and sometimes very funny, and this is done in a way that doesn’t mock the French or anyone else. Savage is a pro, handling this delicate characteristic deftly. The mentor tells Nora that a spy known as “Le Faulcon” is here to kill her; he is a “Russian hitting man”.

Whoa now. Frankly, I would be on the plane back to the States in a jiffy; but then, I would not have gone at all. Nora, on the other hand, is a badass.

This leads me to my very favorite aspect of Savage’s work, which is becoming a literary signature: women generally don’t get saved by men here. Women either save themselves, or they save others. But in this regard, Savage is the ultimate anti-noir author. There are no helpless women. Three cheers for Savage’s powerful feminist fiction.

Last, let’s look at the side characters. There are a host of them, and a number of them are known by multiple names, so this is not a beach read. I quickly learned not to read this story after I took my sleeping pill, because if I did, I would just have to read it again the next day. In addition to our colorful older French mentor, Savage introduces a new character named Fanny that I would love to see again.

Get it digitally or get it on paper, but if you love a well-crafted psychological thriller, you have to read this book.

The Quantum Spy, by David Ignatius*****

“America is a country where race matters. The more people say they are, what, color-blind, the more it is a lie.”

thequantumspyDavid Ignatius writes gripping spy fiction, and this is his best work.  The basis of this one is the longstanding intelligence war between the CIA and its Chinese counterpart; the story is fictional, but his careful research ensures that this could have happened.  Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Edelweiss and W.W. Norton and Company Publishers. This book will be available to the public tomorrow, November 7, 2017.

Harris Chang is Chinese-American, raised to respect the red, white and blue.  He works for the CIA, and has been sent to investigate a leak in a quantum research lab. As the USA and China struggle to achieve technological dominance, tensions rise. Chang wonders if he has been chosen to investigate based on his ethnicity, since he knows very little about China or even his own family tree; why yes he has. The Chinese expect to be able to turn him because of it, and over the course of time, his bosses begin to suspect that it’s happened.  Harris is loyal, and he chafes at the unfairness of his treatment, but is determined to succeed. After all, what could prove his loyalty more clearly than to perform above the standard to which most of the Agency’s employees are held?

The setting changes constantly as spies chase other spies all over the world, but the story takes place primarily in Arlington, Virginia and in Singapore. There are also some especially tense, intriguing scenes set in Mexico, and I love the side details about Trotsky’s house, which is now a museum.

Ignatius dumbs down nothing for anyone, and so the reader should have literacy skills that are sharp and ready. Don’t read this one after you take your sleeping pill. Trust me.

The story can be read—and mostly will be, I think—as an enjoyable bit of escapism. With current events so intense, we all need some of that, and it’s what I expected when I requested the DRC. But I find it much more rewarding because of the racial subtext. It’s an area that’s important to me, and at first my back was up when I saw hints of it without knowing what the writer’s intentions were. So many are astonishingly clueless, or worse, when it comes to this aspect of fiction. But as I saw where he was taking it, I had to completely reevaluate my opinion. I would love to be surprised in exactly this way more frequently.

The ending made me want to stand up and cheer.

Highly recommended to those that love strong thrillers, and even more so for those that also cherish civil rights in the USA.


Three minutes to Doomsday, by Joe Navarro***

threeminutestodoomsday“Nothing’s ever over till the fat lady sings.”

Trite? Yes. Abrasive? Absolutely!  Sexist? All the damn time. Profane? Seriously profane, and not in a way that some of us might find amusing. And yet, this memoir has a strangely fascinating aspect as well.  It combines two stories, the primary one an espionage case in which the author plays the primary role, and a secondary one, the implosion of the author’s personality and marriage. It’s not fun reading, but after a certain point, there’s no turning away from it either. Thanks go to Net Galley and Scribner for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

Navarro is a hot-shot young FBI agent in 1988, and it is while conducting what is expected to be a fairly routine interview that he notes a “tell” from former US soldier Rod Ramsey. It becomes the basis of an espionage case that goes much deeper than anyone anticipated. Navarro uses his expertise in nonverbal communication to tell what Ramsey is feeling during the various phases of his interviews, and he also uses it to control and manipulate Ramsey into cooperating with the investigation. Ramsey is the one soul on this planet with fewer friends than Navarro, and so Navarro spends years making Ramsey believe that he himself is that friend, practically family. He does it so he can have this kid busted and send him away for a really long time.

Navarro knows a lot about reading and controlling others nonverbally, but he doesn’t know a thing about building a family life or about how to make friends, and it’s clear he knows this, yet he can’t help himself. He tells us that an agent he wants to assist him tells a supervisor that she would prefer to work with someone else, and specifically, with anyone, anyone, anyone else but him. A number of other people echo this, and yet his personality continues on its hell-bent-for-leather downhill trajectory.

While he continues his self-aggrandizement with a hearty side-serving of brazen braggadocio, Navarro recounts again and again how much he hates the office staff at work, little people that are getting in his way by attempting to do their jobs. Clearly they just don’t understand how very important he is, but that’s okay, because he is letting the world know now.  Regarding the office manager that dares remind him of small requirements like changing the oil in his official vehicle, he uses a tired aphorism:

“Don’t try to teach a pig to sing. It annoys the pig and it wastes your time.”

He lets us know that he swore at, patronized, and berated her constantly, and lest we take his admissions as a sign of penitence, he also lets us know that he hates her still. He has changed her name for obvious legal reasons, but he hasn’t changed his obnoxious attitude or gained a speck of humility.

Add to this the fact that, though this case is terrific book material, the guy isn’t much of a writer. Clichés abound, and very basic principles of narrative writing are either never learned or disregarded. He starts chapters with lists, apparently too busy and important to transform these into paragraphs. I’m not all that sure he ever edited his work (because he might have noticed his overuse of parenthesis) and I’m not sure he permitted anyone else to do so either (because surely they would have come to his rescue).

Still, it’s an interesting story. Whereas someone else could no doubt do a finer job of writing this thing, it’s undeniably compelling. I recommend this memoir to those that enjoy espionage thrillers and true crime stories, but don’t give up the full sticker price. Read it for free or cheap, and save your serious dollars for serious writers.

The Prisoner, by Alex Berenson****

theprisoner Berenson has written a whole series of espionage thrillers featuring John Wells, a CIA operative fighting al Qaeda. I was unaware of this when I requested a DRC from Net Galley and Putnam Penguin, but I find it stands up quite nicely as a stand-alone novel. Would I have enjoyed it even more if I’d read the others first? We will never know.  However, if you’d like to read this tightly woven thriller either in sequence or singly, it will be available January 31, 2017.

To enjoy an espionage thriller, one has to buy the premise, namely that the CIA is a heroic organization, or at least has a segment of good guys that are fighting terrorism to keep innocent civilians safe. This is a premise I buy cheerfully for the sake of a good yarn; I do it when I read crime fiction in which the cops are morally righteous, or at least more good than bad, so why not here. In exchange, I got to enjoy an intense, interesting thriller that is different from a lot of the other fiction I read, and novelty is a meaningful selling point when one spends several hours daily with one’s nose in a book.

This is a literate read. In a world of dumbed-down fiction that plays to the lowest common denominator, I have come to value writers that have a strong vocabulary and aren’t afraid to use it. I also learned some things about the Middle East and how the USA operates there, including a few new specialized terms and some information about the cultures featured in that part of the world. Of course, this is fiction and it could also be true that Berenson made it all up, but his past includes work as a war correspondent in Iraq, and so perhaps this is what gives the setting its authenticity.

Our premise is that there is a mole at a high level inside of the CIA. John Wells has been feeling the itch to travel, impatient with his wife’s demand for more family time and suffocated by the dull sameness of everyday life in the States. He volunteers to return to the Mid-East and pose as an al Qaeda recruit so that he can be tossed into a Bulgarian prison and cozy up to the high-up operative that is interned there.

I blanched slightly at this; I have read a couple of former CIA employees’ memoirs, and I had to swallow hard to pretend that this guy would actually do this thing. But when we read thrillers, whether it’s crime, mystery, or a spy story, we don’t really want to read about tedium and paper pushing; we want excitement. Once I bought the premise, I was wedded to the narrative.

The other key characters here are Shafer, the CIA officer Wells reports to and who is also hunting for the mole; and the mole, whose name I can’t tell you without ruining the book.At first I thought I was seeing shallow characterization, but Wells’ character is developed in a way that is so subtle that the reader may not realize it’s occurred. Gradually we come to know who Wells is, how he thinks, how he will respond. On the other hand, our mole is a loser and remains a caricature throughout.

Every significant character here is male, but from what little I know, that’s consistent with the CIA, especially among the highest officers, a glass ceiling that’s hard to crack, so Berenson is merely reflecting US intelligence as it actually is.

The plot’s arc is a little different than one might usually expect.  The hook at the start is arresting, and I expected it to perhaps ratchet up, up, up from there. Instead, the pace flagged once we were about 15 percent of the way in, and then gradually began to ascend again. By the time I was 70 percent of the way in, I understood that the next time I picked it up, I would have to finish it.

When we hit the climax, set in France, I threw off the quilt and sat up. The pulse-pounding denouement was inconsistent with lying supine and I read the last 15 percent of the book sitting up and leaning forward.

This story is guaranteed to spike your adrenaline and chase away the winter blahs. Recommended to those that enjoy espionage thrillers.

Fidelity, by Jan Fedarcyk***-****

fidelityRetired FBI agent Jan Fedarcyk makes her debut with this intense spy novel, and it is bound to keep the reader guessing and turning pages deep into the night. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received for review purposes. I rate this story with 3.5 stars and round it upward.

The selling point for the new reader of what is destined to become the Kay Malloy series, is that the author has spent 25 years in the FBI and knows what she’s talking about. Though she reminds the reader that a lot of the FBI agent’s job is done at a desk sifting through endless forms to fill out and reports to write and not much of what we see on TV, we also know that she can spot an implausible situation a mile away and not go there or do that.

So the initial question that came to me was whether someone that’s worked for the Feds for a quarter century still has enough imagination left to write interesting fiction, and now I can tell you straight up that Fedarcyk does, and she can, and she did. I like the level of complexity, which is literate without being impossible to follow. The reader will want to give her story full attention; nobody can watch television and read this book during the ads. It’s well paced and the suspense is built in a masterful manner.

Characterization comes up a little short, and I can imagine that this will be her key focus in writing future books in the series. Kay is so darn perfect, and I never feel I know her deeply, despite the discussion of her past and how she is motivated by it. We see her tempted to use her position for a very small, somewhat justifiable personal reason briefly, but she is nonetheless something of a cardboard hero all the way through. Likewise, the Russian spies are big, blocky bad guys, thugs that drink Vodka. The spy novel tradition has been honored, but I would like to see more layers to these characters as we move forward. The ending, while it surprises me to some extent, is not one that the reader had a reasonable chance of guessing, but to some extent that’s true of a lot of espionage thrillers.  What might be really cool would be to see an espionage version of Kay’s own Moriarty come into play.

As is always the case for me when I read espionage thrillers, police procedurals, and other novels that involve heroic cops, I have to construct a mental barricade between what I see in real life and what I am willing to believe when I read fiction. One of Fedarcyk’s characters snorts in derision about the time when people were willing to die for Marxism, and I have news: some of us still would. But for a fun ride, I am delighted to suspend reality and buy the premise until the book is done.

One area where I struggled—and to be honest, I don’t know whether anyone else will or not—was with two characters, first Luis, whose last name isn’t used very much, and then Torres, whose first name doesn’t get used much either. This reviewer has taught more than one student named Luis Torres, so this may factor into my confusion about 75% of the way through the story when I realize that these have to be two separate people, but for awhile I am convinced that Uncle Luis Torres has mentored her into the field, and so when the story arc is near its peak, I have to go back and reread some of the novel to be certain I knew who is who. Luis is the uncle; Torres is the agent and mentor; they’re two separate guys.

All told, this is a promising start to what is sure to be an engaging series. The world needs to see more strong women in fiction, and so I welcome Kay Malloy and look forward to seeing future installments. A fine debut, and it’s for sale now.

The Sleeper, by Robert Janes***

thesleeperThe Sleeper is an espionage thriller set just before Britain enters World War II. David Ashby is living in Germany with his family, but international tensions become so compelling that a British citizen is unable to live there safely anymore. Splitting from his German wife, he grabs their seven year old daughter and goes back to the UK with her. The German government is determined to retrieve the child, and the struggle over little Karen is the basis of the story. Thank you to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review.

This one is tough to review, because it has so much going for it, and yet other aspects hold it back. Foremost among the latter is the premise; would Hitler really send this much firepower after one kid locked in a domestic dispute? Youth were a big part of his recruitment campaign, yet it’s hard to conceive of all this time, money, and attention being lavished on the retrieval of one solitary child—and at that, a girl, who by Nazi definition is bound for motherhood, church, and her kitchen. But once we just leap in and let ourselves believe either that this could be true, or that there may be a secondary reason as yet to be revealed to us for Hitler’s diligence, it’s an enjoyable read.

Janes is painstaking in his attention to historical detail. The culture, the more formal reference to others, with the salutation of Miss, Mrs., or Mr. (or their equivalents in other languages) rather than the common use of first names used in Western nations today resonates, along with technology and a host of other historical minutiae. His attention to all aspects of setting is equally outstanding. He weaves a complex, hyper-literate plot that at times is compelling, but the story would be better served if he were to streamline it a little, because there are a lot of side details that lend nothing to the story. For example, whether Ashby has a gay relationship has no bearing on the main story or its outcome. In fact, there is way too much of who is sleeping with whom; I can see why his ex-wife would be motivated partially by jealousy, but the reader is treated to the romantic or sexual inclinations of just about every woman in the village, and it’s distracting rather than useful, and it gets in the way of stronger character development. I also found many of the transitions ragged, sometimes startling, but this may very well only be true of the galley; sometimes the DRC doesn’t include little dividing marks that will be in the final copy to cue the reader of a change of scene; thus I didn’t include this issue in my rating.

About halfway through , the style of writing changes, becomes less fluent and takes on some odd quirks that made me flip to the author page to see whether the writer was perhaps not a native English speaker and the book translated from another tongue. However, since he credits two others with helping him with the brief bits of dialogue in German and French, that doesn’t seem likely. There is one particularly distracting feature of the grammar that I tried to ignore, but after awhile found myself highlighting its frequency to see whether it was really occurring as often as I believed. The specifics of this I will send to the publisher, in the hope that perhaps it can be mitigated by the time it comes out. With this distraction removed, the book would be 3.5 stars, maybe even 4.

The climactic scene in the mine tunnels is absolutely riveting, and the stilted language and grammatical quirks that occur roughly from the 50% to 80% portions are nowhere to be found during this critical part of the book. It is largely Janes’s outstanding word-smithery with regard to setting that makes the climax so palpable and taut.

Should you invest in this novel? I guess that depends on your fondness for WWII fiction, and how deep your pockets are. There are other novels in the same vein that I recommend more highly, but it’s such a large field, and you could certainly do worse.

This title becomes available for purchase December 15, 2015.

Mrs. John Doe, by Tom Savage *****

mrsjohndoeTom Savage is master of the high octane, full-speed-ahead espionage thriller. Last year he gave us Penny for the Hangman, which kept me up late at night, and this year if anything he has improved upon it with Mrs. John Doe. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House-Alibi for the DRC. Now that’s I’ve finished it, I can breathe again!

Nora Baron is a widow. Her husband Jeff has been killed in the line of duty as a CIA operative in Britain. She goes to claim his corpse, get him cremated and take him home…and then all hell breaks loose, because nothing, nothing, nothing is as it seems.

Savage’s thriller style is both fast-paced and psychological. We never know who Nora can trust, and so we are constantly on edge. Sometimes it irritates me when a writer messes with my head, but the way Savage does it just makes me want to sit up and howl for more. From one friend-who-can-help (or is it a foe-who-will-turn-on-her?) to another, we are constantly cheering for Nora, advising her (good gravy, NO, don’t get in that car!), and every time we feel we have a pretty good grip on what ‘s going on and what’s going to happen next, it turns out we couldn’t be more mistaken. Savage accomplishes all this without resorting to trickily withheld information or any of the other shabby cheats and foils that lesser authors deliver. The story arc that would, in another thriller, start to pick up past the halfway mark and really accelerate at 85%, instead picks up almost from the get-go and keeps us furiously turning the pages until after the climax, when we finally wind down just enough to know what happens to our protagonist after the ride is over.

Those that read my reviews know that I can’t so much as tie my own shoelaces without looking for political content, so I also want to mention that the anti-Pakistani slurs and assumptions that all characters from the Middle East are terrorists get taken care of tidily.

Ultimately, having the woman depicted in such a positive, capable fashion is a touch that boomer-feminists like me, as well as the younger, newer wave of feminists, will appreciate. And while once in awhile something implausible slides into the text, we have to buy the premise anyway, because Savage isn’t going to pause long enough to talk about it, and we have to know what happens next. So as usual, an excellent writer can make us believe almost anything, whereas an indifferent one can’t make us bond with the everyday and the ordinary.

When this thriller comes out October 6, get a copy and hold on tight. It’s going to be one frenzied, wild ride!

Hard Rain, by Peter Abrahams ****

hardrainHard Rain is a nail-biter of a suspense novel, part mystery and part espionage thriller, and Peter Abrahams is a writer with credentials as long as your arm, including being Stephen King’s favorite American suspense novelist. After reading this skillfully woven tale I can see why. My thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for the free galley. It was one wild ride!

Hard Rain is set in the period after Vietnam, but prior to the time when satellites revolutionized our means of communication. Our opening scenes involve a mysterious, sinister fellow named Bao Dai. His murder of a stranger for no apparent reason sets the reader on edge, and the surreal tone the writer lends is better than anything I have ever seen. In fact, the writing style and pacing are so brilliant that until I stumbled across some unexpected but fairly glaring problems in the last quarter of the book, it was headed for a five star review and a home on my favorites list. But more about that later.

Our chief problem, once the initial set up flashes past us, is that Jessie’s daughter is missing. Her ex-husband, Pat Rodney, took her for the weekend. They were going to go fishing, and then she was going to be returned to Jessie in time for a birthday party. But they never made it to the fishing boat, and there are some ominous messages on Pat’s answering machine. Kate never came home, and Jessie has no clue where she is.The cops aren’t all that concerned, seeing it as a routine custody violation that will surely be resolved on its own, but Pat has never been responsible, and has never ever wanted full custody; Jessie just doesn’t think he would snatch her. Her best friend, Barbara, is a no-holds-barred lawyer, and she’s ready to get down to business, but she is killed by a hit and run driver as she goes to cross Jessie’s street, wearing Jessie’s yellow rain slicker. That one person was the entire cavalry; now Jessie is on her own.

It just doesn’t look good.

The trail takes Jessie to Bennington College in Vermont. Pat was originally from Vermont, and she thinks he may have gone home, or at least contacted his family. And once there, all hell breaks loose. A particularly harrowing scene involves a chase scene in a subterranean tunnel beneath the dormitories.

A parallel storyline that blinks in and out has to do with an aging spy named Zyzmchuk, who is about to be sent out to pasture. Keith and Dahlin, a snappy, younger pair of more business-like spooks, plan one further adventure for “Zyz” in the hope that when it’s over, he’ll either be dead or leave quietly. These two, for some reason, made me think of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, the two sinister advisers that did President Nixon’s bidding at times, and at other times kept him on a leash to keep him from acting crazier than he already was. Maybe it’s because I am also reading Tim Weiner’s galley about the Nixon presidency. I have to say that of all the myriad characters that wink in and out of this complex, deliberately disorienting story, Keith and Dahlin are my favorites.

The imagery, with water and falling being constant themes throughout this spooky story, is among the best I have read, together with a deceptively simple sentence pattern that creates suspense in something of a house-that-Jack-built fashion. I still can’t figure out how he does it. It’s uncanny, and really absorbing.

So, even with the problems toward the end, is this creepy novel worth your time and money? Assuming you enjoy this sort of story, I have to say yes, it is. In fact, this writer won the Edgar earlier in his career, and that early title is now on my to-read list. I probably won’t find it as a galley, which means I have to hunt it down at the library, or fish around for it on my annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books. So what follows was not enough to cross this writer off my A list, by any means. And now if you read further, there are going to be spoilers, so if you want to read this yourself and not know how the ending shakes out—or at least bits of it—this is the place to quit reading. And for those skimming, I will make it more obvious:


We are 75% of the way into the story. Jessie has been beaten by bad guys, and has been rescued, medical attention sought by our very own spook, Zyzmchuk. He is keeping an eye on her partly for her own good (awww), but also so that she doesn’t get in his way, because her mission interferes with part of his. He sets a guard to watch her when he has to go out, but otherwise, he sits in a chair in her hotel room there in New England, keeping watch over her. She is a sweet young thing still; he is retirement age.

And so there she is, with a nasty concussion and a number of other bad injuries, worried about her missing child, and so what would be more natural than inviting this duffer, a man as ancient as I am now, to come climb in bed with her so they can have great sex?

What the hell?

“’Shit,’ said Dahlin.
“’Fuck’, said Keith.’”

Okay, that quote belongs much earlier in the book (and more than once), but I like it here just as well, so I have taken the liberty of inserting it. Because really…what is that about? Did someone in marketing decide the book needed some gratuitous sex in order to sell properly? Go figure.

At the 85% we have to wonder whether some bad editor also cut out a chunk of story that should have been more judiciously and lightly pruned, because when Jessie sneaks out of her hotel room to try to find her daughter, she returns to find that Zyz, the guard Zyz posted while he stepped out, and all other apparent spooks and body guards have decamped. We, the readers, know that the guard in her hotel room was killed after she snuck out, but we don’t know where the hell Zyz went. And the next time we run across him, he is strolling into his office in Washington as if nothing untoward ever occurred. There is never any real explanation for this bizarre leap in the plot.

All that said, once again, I would happily read more of this author’s work. His capacity to create a frisson of chilly suspense far outweighs the Hollywood-like choice to dump the hot chick in bed with the old guy, as well as what may have been an editor’s error toward the conclusion.

This book will be released digitally July 28, and you can get a copy anytime you like now. What better way to spend a vacation, or even a staycation? Just stay out of the water, and definitely keep an eye on your kids. You won’t want them out of your sight while you read this story!