Two years ago, David McCloskey hit it big with his debut espionage novel, Damascus Station. Hordes of readers, intelligence professionals, and critics alike praised its realism and lively, timely plot. His new book, Moscow X, is even better, with more than one pundit calling him “The new John Le Carré.”
There’s no point in suggesting the plot in anything other than broad brush strokes because, in the tradition of the best spy fiction, what’s happening on the surface, the day-to-day events, are only a small part of the picture. And probably misleading too. I saw this story as essentially about the interplay of three women, all three well characterized, committed, and worth rooting for. But vastly different agendas.
Outspoken and profane Artemis Aphrodite Procter is back, heading a new CIA unit called Moscow X whose aim is to undermine the Russian Federation and—yes, McCloskey names names—Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Her unconventional approach to spycraft gives her a creative edge in this job and, naturally, keeps her skating on some pretty thin bureaucratic ice. Hortensia Fox is a CIA operative working at a London law firm that specializes in handling the assets of wealthy Russians. Calling herself Sia, she’s busily trolling for information and cultivating contacts. Anna Andreevna Agapova is a Russian FSB agent, member of a wealthy Russian family, and married to an even wealthier man she cannot stand, for good reason. The Agapova family is being systematically shut out of the government power structure and, as the story opens, a huge portion of its wealth is stolen at the behest of a Putin intimate. Anna and her father believe (or prefer to believe) this occurred outside Putin’s awareness, and they want their money back.
Procter, as much a fireball as ever, sees an opportunity for Sia to use this theft as an opening wedge that will lead to, well, who knows? Maybe getting the money back and maybe in a way that looks like a coup was in the works. If Putin hasn’t paid attention to the internecine warfare among his cronies, he cannot ignore an attempted coup. And would take dramatic, destabilizing action in response.
Procter’s team develops a rather charming ruse to get Anna and her husband, Vadim, in contact with the Western agents. Vadim and Anna live on a large horse farm outside Saint Petersburg. Sia offers a visit to an elegant Mexican horse farm, headed by Maximiliano Castillo—around Sia’s age and handsome—leaving out the critical detail that the farm has been a CIA front for decades. All Max and Sia need do is act like a couple and winkle their way into the Russians’ confidence, Anna’s at least, through the business of buying and selling and riding thoroughbreds. It becomes a clever cat-and-mouse game between Anna and Sia and your opinion of which is the cat and which the mouse will keep changing.
Difficulty piles onto difficulty. What makes this book such an exciting read is that, between the Russians’ impenetrable motivations and the Western agents’ complicated and shifting agendas, there is no end to the potential dangers Max and Sia and Anna face, with Procter wringing her hands back in Langley. Although all the characters’ actions make sense, according to their own visions of reality and self-interest, you nevertheless can’t predict what will happen when you turn the page. When your operative in a hostile country starts looking for a beam she can throw a noose over, you know the situation has reached a desperate point.
Oh, and did I mention it’s winter in Russia? Lots of snow. Snow everywhere. You can’t hide your tracks or your heat sig and, of course, those drones with their facial recognition technology are watching. When Max and Sia visit Anna, they know microphones and cameras are everywhere, even in the bedroom, so their being a couple has to seem real to those watchers—more challenging than it sounds.
McCloskey effectively evokes the paranoia and suspicion of the autocratic Russian state, in contrast to sunny San Cristobal. The author avoids most mention of the drug cartels, and you may wonder how the Castillo family keeps that brand of violence away from their barns and pastures, but so much bad stuff is going on—you’ll never miss it.
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