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“Good, skilful, dirty fun” – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Joseph Kanon’s Defectors

Published in The Witness

DefectorsMaybe it’s because anything seems better than the present, or perhaps the excitingly glamorous art of spying has now been reduced to a slew of dubious “intelligence” reports and fake news, but there’s a lot of fictional nostalgia for the Cold War.

It was ugly, depressing and horrible to endure, but it still makes for great spy thrillers.

This time, it’s Joseph Kanon (Los Alamos, The Good German, Leaving Berlin) who is trawling in the murky waters of the 1960s.

Back in 1949, charming, clever Frank Weeks, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and a leading spook at the CIA was exposed as a Russian spy, and escaped to Moscow, where he and his wife become part of the ex-pat community of British and American traitors, loathed by those they betrayed and not trusted by their new masters.

But in 1961, Frank is given permission to write a memoir explaining his actions, or at least the bits of them the Russians want explained.

His brother Simon, who had been an unwitting source of some of the secrets Frank took to Russia, is now a New York publisher and is invited to fly to Moscow and work with Frank on the manuscript.

As a boy and young man, Simon worshipped his elder brother, but there is now a bitter history, and their reunion is fraught.

Still, a chance to reconnect with Frank’s wife, with whom Simon once had a brief fling, a bit of Russian sight-seeing, a trip to the Bolshoi and so on have their attractions, and glimpses of other high profile spies, both real (Guy Burgess) and fictional, have been laid on, along with the prospect of a bestseller at the end of the process.

But this is the Cold War, and nothing and no-one is quite what they seem on the surface.

As Frank draws Simon into a web of intrigue, the latter catches glimpses of other schemes and forces at play.

Spying is an amoral trade: collateral damage will occur and to those involved, will not matter all that much. The reader needs to concentrate as the tension builds, the complexities increase and the levels of duplicity deepen to a violent and shattering conclusion. Good, skilful, dirty fun. – Margaret von Klemperer

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