Alma Katsu writes critically acclaimed and deeply creepy horror, so the news that she was switching to espionage for her latest title came as a surprise – until I discovered that Katsu spent thirty five years in the intelligence community. Her inside knowledge of the CIA and other “alphabet agencies” gives every page of Red Widow the ring of truth and makes for a fascinating, immersive thriller.
Lyndsey Duncan is a disgraced CIA handler renowned for her ability to ferret out falsehoods. But after a misstep in her last posting, her future at the agency is in question until her old boss intervenes: there’s a mole in Russia division, and he needs Lyndsey, the human lie detector, to track them down. Determined to prove herself, she begins her investigation and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Theresa, a fellow agent and the widow of a former director. As the investigation progresses, both women uncover secrets, conspiracies, and coverups within the CIA that make them question — and risk — everything.
Red Widow takes place almost entirely in the DC area, unlike many spy novels that bounce all over the globe, and the tightly focused setting ramps up the tension. The plot is excellently twisty – the mole’s identity is not a shocker, but their motivation is – and once it’s revealed, the story takes on a new urgency. There are no shortage of compelling characters, including a chilling Russian spymaster that seems poised to show up in a sequel.
The two women at the center of the novel are excellent counterpoints. As a spy-hunter, Lyndsey’s ability to spot lies is a handy one, but it’s not her only skill – she’s thoughtful, patient, and she understands how the CIA operates, both in the corridors of power and in the field. She’s also human – she makes mistakes, doubts herself, and longs for connection. Theresa, still grieving the loss of her husband, feels isolated from her fellow agents. Her friendship with Lyndsey is a welcome respite, especially in the compartmentalized, secretive world of the CIA.
The portrayal of that world is where Red Widow really shines. Alma Katsu understands what CIA life is like, from the thrill of a dead drop to the drudgery of paperwork to the constant jockeying for power. She knows when to follow a moment beat-by-beat, such as when Lyndsey loops in the FBI, breaking down the nuances of the conversation so we understand its peril. Even more importantly, she knows when to gloss over the tedious parts of the job, giving us just enough information to recognize Lyndsey’s ingenuity without slowing the pace.
It’s a tricky balancing act, to write with authority on a topic without getting bogged down in minutiae, and Katsu makes it feel effortless. The result is a thriller with well-drawn characters, a propulsive plot, and a captivating look at the spy life. If you like your espionage equally smart and suspenseful, Red Widow is an ideal choice.