Novel: Defectors by Joseph Kanon

During browsing sessions, Joseph Kanon’s books have been flickering through my peripheral vision for years now. I finally took the plunge with his latest, Defectors (2017). Rather in the vein of Alan Furst, the novel is a tale of historical espionage, and while Kanon’s writing style isn’t entirely my cup of tea, it comes pretty damn close, and he delivers a compelling, twisty plot.

Frank Weeks is something of an American Burgess or MacLean: a traitorous intelligence officer who fled to Moscow when his cover was blown. In 1961, years after his defection, Frank writes a KGB-authorized memoir of his exploits, and lures his brother Simon—a publisher—to Russia, ostensibly to review and finalize the manuscript. Hidden motives abound, however. For one thing, Frank’s wife Joanna, who followed him behind the Iron Curtain, is an old flame of Simon’s, adding awkward subtext to the reunion. For another, Simon was approached by the CIA before the trip, and encouraged to report back to them. But Frank has his own agenda, one that’s about to entangle his brother far more deeply in espionage than he ever imagined—turning this unusual Cold War family reunion into a treacherous battle of wits.

Starting quietly, Defectors conjures the dark, paranoid ambience of Soviet Russia rather effectively, and does an excellent job of developing its characters and their complicated interrelationships in the early chapters. It does so, however, through lengthy, dialogue-heavy scenes that often mimic the fits and starts of realistic speech. This makes for slow-going, especially early, as all this character-building discussion forces the reader to sift important plot turns from the patter of colorful conversation. It’s a confounding tactic, and yet, it pays off strategically, for when the big picture reveals and plot twists arrive—and they most certainly do—they leap out powerfully, drawing attention to the elegance of the complex plot. The extensive character-building doesn’t go to waste, adding emotional weight to later developments, including a rather classic-feeling climax. In sum, Defectors’ construction had a curious, cumulative effect; it distanced me early, but drew me in late, so that my appreciation didn’t truly hit home until the final moments. As writerly sleight-of-hand goes, it’s an impressive feat that made me curious to experience more of Kanon’s work.

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