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Beneath Secret Lives, More Secrets

Tue, 11/07/2023 - 21:20
Anna Pitoniak
Andrew Bartholomew

“The Helsinki Affair” 
Anna Pitoniak  
Simon & Schuster, $27.99

What makes espionage fiction so appealing to so many readers and writers, even the most serious, artful, and insightful? 

"The condition of the spy is one in which to some extent we all live," the late David Cornwell, pen name John le Carré, said in a radio interview with me many years ago, his own modest tenure on Her Majesty's Secret Service then already well known but his secret sex life not so much. 

And yet, he went on: "Whether in relation to the institutions we work for, the firms, corporations we work for. Within marriage, outside marriage. All of us have secret lives that we're aware of. We mustn't think we're the only people who live them. . . . And so perhaps the universality of my stuff in some way speaks to that unexpressed part of us."

"The Helsinki Affair" is the established novelist Anna Pitoniak's first venture into what Cornwell called the secret world, and it is largely driven by the notion that even real spies can have secret lives beneath those that come with their tradecraft — a potentially disastrous duality. 

For Ms. Pitoniak's C.I.A. veteran, Charlie Cole, adultery that he should have avoided on both moral and professional grounds leads to him being blackmailed into years of double-agent duty for Moscow during the Cold War, also to the sad ending of his marriage, and to the shameful prison-without-bars of a C.I.A. desk job far from any secret ops or classified intel.

Charlie's daughter, the stubborn, hunch-chasing Amanda Cole, has unaccountably followed his footsteps into the agency, and now is hoping to keep hidden what she suspects may be her dear dad's traitorous sins decades before. That secret agenda creates anguishing conflict with her mission against current Kremlin tactics — from high-tech international market manipulation to all-but-undetectable means of murder. 

In an introductory "Dear Reader" message, the author explains how she had come to love the work of le Carré, Graham Greene, Sag Harbor's own Alan Furst, and other spy story masters — "the taut pacing, the shadowy intrigue, the moral murkiness. I loved everything about the category, with one exception. These novels were almost entirely written by and about men. . . ." 

"I wanted to find a female-centric spy novel that would make me feel the way those books made me feel," she recalls, concluding, "If I couldn't find that book, maybe I ought to try writing it myself."

It is a noteworthy espionage debut, with engrossing alternating story lines — the father's past in Russia's neighbor Finland, the daughter's present in Rome, Russia, and Washington — and the final crossing of those lines in and around the C.I.A.'s Langley, Va., headquarters, with moments both angry and touchingly emotional.

Along the way, Ms. Pitoniak gives us a nervous Russian "walk-in" whose warning of an imminent assassination is ignored, a dead U.S. senator's notes that reveal ongoing Moscow treachery (and the reason for that assassination), an overconfident oligarch, a majestic Afghan mujahideen leader, ruthless hitmen nicknamed Tweedledum and Tweedledee, secret sex with a woman of many faces, and the chaos of a spy trap turned bloody shootout in the snow of a deserted island off the Helsinki coast.

There are even echoes of le Carré's Connie Sachs — the eccentric expert on Moscow spying from his Karla Trilogy — in Ms. Pitoniak's sharp-tongued C.I.A. veteran Kathleen Frost, "the only person at the agency who intimidated [its] director."

"The rumors had circulated through the Clandestine Service for years. Kath Frost had understood the KGB better than the KGB itself did. Kath Frost had sniffed out more double agents than anyone in agency history. Kath Frost had accurately predicted exactly what Mikhail Gorbachev would say to every Western leader he ever met. And Kath had accomplished all these things while being a woman," the author notes with feminist pride.

Kath also thought best on long walks, disappeared for weeks at a time, and didn't believe in dinner. "It ruined your sleep" — which she does for precisely six hours and 15 minutes each night, with no naps later — "and was bad for your digestion."

Frost is key to Amanda understanding and acting on the dead senator's scribbled notes, with her father's name at the end.

The notes describe an algorithm that Moscow had developed to spread viral social media messages about target corporations, boosting their stock price to unimagined heights, from which Russian agents can then threaten to topple it unless management takes action favored by the Kremlin in its subtle international chess game: "The media company that fired their steel-spined general counsel [for] someone much more lukewarm on the First Amendment. The investment bank reopening their Moscow offices after a long absence. The oil company that decides to shift their focus to drilling in the Russian arctic." 

Not quite capturing Crimea, obviously. But in the plot that Amanda sets out to stymie, a U.S. aerospace company is being forced to back out of a multimillion-dollar sale of missiles to NATO ally Poland.

So, reasonably high stakes, high tension, tough tactics. 

Sadly, for me, the book never quite rises to the elegance and sense of inevitability that I associate with le Carré-level prose and plots. 

Darting in and out of the dual timelines, fragmenting and jumbling taut action scenes, can seem overly manipulative and distracting. For Charlie and Amanda the greatest challenges are often their own doubts. Should he tell? Should she go?

Then there is a C.I.A. station chief's absurd assumption that even if the threat of a senator's assassination is credible, having an operative walk up to warn him would blow up an entire secret agency network, so best do nothing and let him die. 

Surely some U.S. embassy lackey could hand the poor guy a note at the airport. Or why not send a warning to the airliner on which he's arriving, and arrange for an immediate return flight? Oh, end of plot and of novel?

Quite a few mysteries remain unresolved, including who after 30 years would know enough to plant a hint of sidelined Charlie as a mole. 

More fundamentally, how did Amanda ever get into the C.I.A., much less become a station chief herself? "After graduating high school," we are told, "she had no interest in college . . . so she decided to travel the world, paying her way with a series of short-lived jobs," supposedly loving Russia but never learning its language, she says. Unusual to say the least. Not to mention her dad's shadowed history in the agency.

Perhaps a sequel will say more about Amanda's past and her future adventures — accompanied, of course, by Kath, a character too pungent to put aside. Perhaps we'll see if Charlie has yet another secret life the C.I.A. can successfully exploit, bringing him "redemption," maybe a rematch with that woman of many faces who trapped him in the first place.

Perhaps that's Ms. Pitoniak's next book. But that's her secret.

Anna Pitoniak's previous books are "Our American Friend," "Necessary People," and "The Futures." She has a house in East Hampton. 

David M. Alpern was a reporter, writer, senior editor, and radio host for Newsweek magazine over 40 years, with a brief break for training at the U.S. Army Intelligence School. He lives in Sag Harbor and hosts programs for local libraries. His tribute to le Carré is on YouTube @tuberdma.

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