In the flurry of Russia-related thrillers published in 2018, Karen Cleveland was a new name. She is one of those ex-security service officers (in her case, CIA) who bring a degree of inside knowledge to their writing. Although, this in itself is no guarantee of authenticity and quality; as the late Jason Matthews’s outdated portrayals of Russia illustrated, for example in Red Sparrow.
The plot of Need To Know is centred around a Russian sleeper agent who lives a normal happy family life with his wife and two young children in the Washington area; a convincing and likeable young American guy, going by the name of Matt.
The original twist is that Matt’s wife, Vivian, works for the CIA, is tasked with uncovering Russian sleeper agents, and discovers that her husband is a spy.
And before anyone complains of spoilers (never a complaint that Russia in Fiction has that much truck with anyway), all of the above is the set-up. It is in the blurb, it is in the first chapter.
Vivian is in her office at Langley. She gains access to a Russian agent’s laptop.
I keep scanning, my eyes drifting over each file, even though I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking for. And then I see a Cyrillic word I recognize. ДРУЗЬЯ. Friends. The last icon in the last row, a manila folder. I double-click and the folder opens into a list of five JPEG images, nothing more. My heart rate begins to accelerate. Five. There are five sleepers assigned to each handler; we know that from multiple sources.
I click open the first image. It’s a headshot of a nondescript middle-aged man in round eyeglasses … I open the second. A woman, orange hair, bright blue eyes, wide smile … I double-click the third image and a face appears on my screen. A headshot, close-up. So familiar, so expected – and yet not, because it’s here, where it doesn’t belong. I blink at it, once, twice, my mind struggling to bridge what I’m seeing with what I’m seeing, what it means. Then I swear that time stops. Icy fingers close around my heart and squeeze, and all I can hear is the whoosh of blood in my ears.
I’m staring in the face of my husband.Need to Know, pp. 11-12
Now that, we hope you’ll agree, is some opening. Well-written, original, putting the reader in a situation where not reading on is the difficult option.
Need To Know is also one of those unusual novels for the genre in that it is written in the first person. Writing in the first person tends to be a sign that it is the author’s first novel. Alex Dryden did it in Red to Black, Charles Cumming did it in A Spy by Nature. They both, wisely in our view, switched to the third person narrator after that. Russia in Fiction fully expected Karen Cleveland’s next novel to follow that trend. But no, Cleveland’s second novel, keep you close (2019), is also written in the first person.
After such an attention grabbing opening, does the rest of Need To Know live up to it? For the most part, yes. The book continues to be well-written and with contemporary originality. Vivian, the CIA officer wife of the Russian illegal, is not drawn in some outline, superspy-who-will-prevail, simplistic way. She juggles a demanding job with looking after young children and trying to manage the lot of her generation in the 21st century developed world —student debt, unaffordable housing, childcare costs, working parents’ guilt. Karen Cleveland is not just drawing on her experience as a CIA agent, but presumably also as a woman and a mother.
And the character of Vivian reminded Russia in Fiction of the lead figure in Tom Bradby’s recently completed Russia-in-fiction trilogy, Kate Henderson; British security service officer balancing family responsibilities with unmasking Russian spies. (The first in that trilogy is reviewed here, and the third is mentioned here).
The originality of Need To Know is reflected not only in characters, but in the plot too. It doesn’t revolve around any ‘is he? isn’t he?’ in relation to Vivian’s husband’s status as a Russian sleeper agent. The first chapter’s big reveal is swiftly confirmed. By chapter three, Matt is spilling the beans
‘I was born in Volgograd … my name is Alexander Lenkov’Need To Know, p. 32
The plot then is more about how the main characters, in their respective roles, handle the opening revelation. It explores the dilemmas of loyalty and trust. It is that question of identity, to the fore in a number of great thrillers; notably Robert Littell’s wonderful Legends (2005).
What happens when we pretend to be someone else to such a degree that in almost every aspect of normal life we become someone else? Does the secret identity, hidden in the heart, become displaced by the adopted self? Do we inhabit the point of view of ‘the other side’ so much that we go native? And when that new identity leads someone into a marriage and parenthood, where then do loyalties lie?
That is the ground on which this story plays itself out.
In Need To Know, Karen Cleveland enters this territory through the medium of fiction. But there are more than echoes here of the 2010 case, in which ten Russian ‘illegals’, some of whom had lived family lives under adopted names for many years, were arrested and deported from the United States.
Gordon Corera wrote a book, Russians Among Us (2020), that covers the case in some detail.
Russians Among Us reads like a novel in places, and has a cover to match. (But don’t get us going again on silhouette covers, let alone the use of a hammer and sickle motif three decades after the collapse of Communism).
Need To Know builds on a great premise. It is well written, and was very much enjoyed here at Russian in Fiction. The novel is constructed, as noted above, with the central fact of its plot set out in plain sight at the beginning. The rest of it is a combination of flash-backs telling how the CIA agent and Russian illegal met, got married, had children, and built a life together, and of developments after the big reveal of Chapter One.
The final twist of Need To Know smacks a little of the ‘engineer an ending that leaves scope for sequels’. Overall though, Cleveland and her novel are a fine addition to the genre’s fold.