By Joseph Kanon, Atria Books, 290 pages, $27
Joseph Kanon is that rare thing, a former publisher who is also a talented writer. His first book, Los Alamos, which won the Edgar Award for the best first novel in 1998, when Kanon (for many years a head honcho at Houghton Mifflin and E.P. Dutton) was already age 50, was published just two years after he quit being a gamekeeper for the more hazardous world of poaching. By now he’s probably wondering why he didn’t become a writer sooner; I know I am. Then again, a great many writers start publishing too early, before they’ve learned their craft and before they have anything much to say. Quite a few even manage to be published while exhibiting no discernible talent.
None of these problems apply to Kanon, an intelligent writer who produces satisfyingly plotted novels that appeal to readers with brains but aren’t so daunting they’re prevented from finding a wide audience. And these days, that takes some doing. Balancing commercial and critical success is like serving two masters, and not many can pull this off. Each time I’ve finished one of Kanon’s books, I’ve asked myself why I haven’t read all of them. There are now eight. As soon as I was done with Defectors, I ordered all the rest from my local bookshop.
Kanon’s latest, which is set in the Soviet Union of 1961, is well-informed by the real-life defections of the British spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean (in 1951), Kim Philby (in 1963) and a host of American atomic spies like Arthur Adams, Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant. Philby published a memoir, My Silent War, in 1968, which contained a mischievous foreword by no less a figure than Graham Greene, who described the book as “far more gripping than any novel of espionage I can remember.” (This foreword is said to have cost Greene a knighthood, deservedly so.) And it’s Philby’s memoir that probably inspired Defectors.
The novel’s central character, Frank Weeks, a former CIA golden boy, has been living in Moscow with his wife, Joanna, since his defection from the United States in 1949. These two exiles inhabit a closely observed, liminal world of spooks and intelligence expats who have risked everything for the cause of Communism but now find themselves disillusioned by the realities of everyday life in their Soviet demi-paradise, distrusted by the very same organs of state security that once employed them to such devastating effect. Forever observed, accompanied by omnipresent KGB minders, they’re exotic fish out of water, flapping around uselessly, gasping for oxygen and struggling to survive.
Kanon’s is a finely observed portrait of a bitchy, brittle, incestuous world, a world in which Guy Burgess complains snobbishly about the shortcomings of the comrades and Frank Weeks struggles to give his still-young life some meaning. There’s a well-written, almost Chekhovian lunch party where Saul Rubin, a close friend of the Weekses, regales the other traitorous guests with self-serving anecdotes about his wife’s ability to outwit security and remove atomic secrets from Los Alamos in the full knowledge of the fate that befell the Rosenbergs.
“Cool as a cucumber,” Rubin explains. “She’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.”
Just such a book is what Frank Weeks has been working on since his arrival in the Soviet Union. Called “My Secret Life,” it has been sanctioned by the K.G.B., but, of course, it’s going to need an editor. Who better than Frank’s younger brother, Simon, a New York publisher, to help whip the manuscript into the sort of shape that will help make it an international best seller? (This is an ex-editor’s novel, after all. Doesn’t every good book need a good editor?)
Simon agrees to the reunion for both professional and personal reasons. Naturally, he’s anxious to find out exactly why his beloved brother betrayed his country. After all, not everything could have been said in a book that has had to pass the vetting of the comrades. At the same time, Simon is very wary of Frank’s motives, not to mention the official permissions that have been granted to him. Why would the Lubyanka even countenance the publication of such a work? Not to mention his being invited there to assist with its birth.
If any of this seems at all unlikely, just remember that book written by Kim Philby, a man John le CarrE described as having “no home, no woman, no faith,” adding that “Behind the inbred upper-class arrogance, the taste for adventure, lies the self-hate of a vain misfit for whom nothing will ever be worthy of his loyalty. In the last instance, Philby is driven by the incurable drug of deceit itself.” Le CarrE might just as brilliantly have been describing Frank Weeks, who at times reminded me of Greene’s best-known and perhaps most slippery character, Harry Lime.
Of course, Frank is not all he seems. But neither is his brother, who worked for the O.S.S. during the war and may still be carrying Langley’s brief in his otherwise well-stuffed valise.
If I have any complaints about “Defectors,” it’s that its depiction of the Soviet Union of 1961 doesn’t seem nearly grim enough. I was there 28 years later, and the place was a dismal dump where only the American dollar had any value. But this is a small complaint, particularly since all the substantial details of the novel’s setting are accurate. I especially liked the murder scene that occurs in Novodevichy Cemetery, where Gogol and Chekhov are buried. As it happens, the Novodevichy’s adjunct cemetery, Kuntsevo, harbors a host of Cold War celebrities, including the American spies Morris and Lona Cohen; Glenn Michael Souther; Trotsky’s murderer, Ramon Mercader; and the old arch traitor Kim Philby himself. There were no flowers on his grave when last I saw it.
–New York Times News Service
Philip Kerr is the author of more than 30 novels, including the Bernie Gunther thrillers.