Defectors: A Novel
Published: Jun 07, 2017
At a college where everyone seemed astronomically bright, Joe Kanon was the bright guy who was also astronomically nice. That is a winning combination in some professions. He wisely chose publishing, and ascended; he became president of Houghton Mifflin and E.P. Dutton. Then he took a trip to Los Alamos and was hit by an idea for a murder mystery set in the secret atomic lab. Who could write it? At length, he knew — he could. So although he’d never even dabbled in fiction, he wrote “Los Alamos,” and, at 50, won the Edgar Award for the best first novel. He went on to write a shelf of mysteries. I read a few — Leaving Berlin and Istanbul Passage — and found them crisply written and tightly plotted, though a bit more complex than my pea brain could follow.
Now, with “Defectors,” he’s become a successor candidate to John le Carré.
That candidacy starts with a plot that’s elegant. Consider this: Frank Weeks was a star in the early days of the CIA. No one knew he was a Communist, funneling secrets to the Russians, until he turned up in Moscow. “The man who betrayed a generation” also betrayed his brother Simon, who had to leave his government job and take up a new profession: book publishing. Now it’s 1961. Frank has written his memoirs. Simon is his publisher. He flies to Moscow to finish the editing with the brother he hasn’t seen in 12 years.
This isn’t a book with a climax that’s about a dispute over the Oxford comma. It’s an espionage thriller — things are never what they seem. As Simon realizes, “Every meal a performance. Saying one thing, knowing another. Something no one knew.” What does Frank know that Simon doesn’t? Even if you guess, that’s just the first right answer. I’ll spare you the spoilers that follow. [To read Chapter 1, click here. To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
The concision of language — clipped, efficient, quasi-literary — is the second glory of “Defectors.” Over 290 pages, that kind of writing could become shtick. It doesn’t, because Kanon is deft with information-sharing. Here’s Frank, explaining himself in a way that gives you more than an explanation:
“It’s a funny word, defector. Latin, defectus. Makes it sound as if we had to leave something behind. To change sides. But we were already on this side. We weren’t leaving anything.”
The third — and trickiest — test of a spy thriller is the relationships, especially how the men feel about women. Most of the thrillers I encounter use women as dupes or seductresses; the characterizations are primitive. Kanon writes real fiction, with characters who are recognizably human. Consider Frank’s wife Jo — she was once Simon’s lover. And he can remember that time:
…now he saw her lying on a bed, dark hair spread out behind her, one leg raised, the hotel in Virginia, their one weekend. You never see a woman the same way afterward, knowing the body under the clothes, the way her skin feels. Someone you know, even years later, the look of her the same in your mind. One weekend, sweaty sheets, eating room service in robes, her throaty laugh, the way she gasped when she came, a whole weekend, just them, no one else. And then she met Frank.
“And then she met Frank.” Sticks a pin in nostalgia, doesn’t it? And suggests that the Moscow air will be thick with memories.
Finally, there’s the pleasure of watching experts share their expertise. At a lunch of defectors, one tells how he moved secrects across borders:
“Cool as a cucumber. My wife’s got the papers in her purse, the most valuable piece of paper in the world right then, and she gets to the train station and they’re inspecting bags. IDs, all that. Why then? Who knew? Maybe just routine. But she’s got to get on the train. So she’s wearing a sun hat and she takes it off and slips the paper in the hat, you know, behind that ribbon that goes around on top. And she gets to the M.P. and she says, here, would you hold this? While she opens her purse to find her ID. So he’s holding the plans for the bomb while she’s fishing around in there. So then thanks, here’s your hat, and she’s on the train. It’s one for the books.”
One for this book, anyway.