In an age when America’s intelligence services aren’t always portrayed in the best light, Joseph Kanon’s new novel about the Cold War seems starkly elegant by comparison. In our starred review, Kirkus says of Defectors, “...not since Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy has there been a family of spooks to rival this one.”
The novel is an intimate and twisty story of two brothers, Frank and Simon Weeks, who have chosen very different paths. Recruited into the nascent Central Intelligence Agency by “Wild Bill” Donovan, the brothers’ paths diverge in 1949 when Frank is exposed as a Communist spy and flees to Moscow. Ousted from the agency, Simon carves out a career as a book publisher, a trade that comes into play when Frank wants to publish his memoir of life as a secret agent. The novel picks up in Moscow circa 1961, a time that Kanon chose for very specific reasons.
“The last book, Leaving Berlin, was about the beginnings of the Cold War,” says Kanon from home in New York City. “The reason this one is set in 1961 is that I wanted it to be at the ‘high summer’ of the Soviet Union, before it descended into sclerotic paralysis. I wanted to set this story in a time when it was still possible for ideologues to really believe in this cause.”
Kanon makes interesting choices with his spy story, not the least of which is to avoid the iconography of Kim Philby, the notorious British spy whose 1963 defection inspired John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) and more recently, Ben McIntyre’s A Spy Among Friends (2014).
“I did want these events to pre-date Kim Philby’s story, because it isn’t a roman-a-clef about him,” Kanon explains. “It’s perfectly true that Philby’s life in Moscow is the one we know the most about, so one takes details from his life that are available. But if there had been an American Philby, this is the person he would have been.”
Even the title of the book is telling, as Simon discovers in Moscow that his brother is not the sole “Hero of the Soviet Union” that he claims to be, but merely one of dozens of defectors who have formed their own dysfunctional community.
“The front story is always just the plot unfolding but the backstory, which drew me to the story in the first place, is the community,” says Kanon. “What happens in most of these stories is that a spy is tipped off that someone is on to them, there’s a chase, and they disappear. But that’s not where it ends. Philby lived in Moscow for 25 years. What is this life like, where they devoted everything to this cause and betrayed everyone for it? They’re supposedly heroes but they’re shunned or ignored by everyone. They increasingly have only each other to depend on.”
The book is grounded in a way that skews much closer to John Le Carré and Graham Greene than the hijinks in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. The tension between these two brothers is also as palpable as a Sam Shepard play.
“The one who is the outlier is Frank, because it’s a very rare thing to become a spy,” Kanon says. “Partly what I wanted to do was to get at how this choice of his, followed by his defection, completely blows up the world around him. It isn’t just about him—it’s about his father, his brother, his wife, and all the people that he’s known and betrayed. Someone has a theory that once a bullet goes off, it never stops; it just keeps going and causing repercussions that weren’t expected. I wanted to get at the fact that this seemingly pure ideological act, which Frank was doing for the right reasons, has these appalling consequences not just for him but for everyone around him.”
Kanon’s books continue to be cinematic as well—his third novel The Good German (2001) was famously adapted for film by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney—and Kanon refers to his trips to Moscow as “location scouting.”
“They’re all movies to me,” he says. “They’re movies in my head. The serious answer is that character is everything in these books, and I think that dialogue is action. The stories, I think, are more intelligent because they’re ideologically based. I have nothing but admiration for people who can write a crackling action adventure novel but that’s not what interests me. What interests me is why people who are supposedly doing the right things for the right reasons result in these horrifying consequences.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Monterey, California.