Alma Katsu is known primarily for historical horror fiction, but evidently she had a lengthy career in the intelligence services. This shows—vividly—in her first spy novel, Red Widow (2021). Brisk, twisty, and authentic, it’s a first-rate debut in the genre, hopefully the first of many.
CIA case officer Lyndsey Duncan comes off assignment in Beirut a minor pariah for a minor offense, wondering if her career is on the line. No one is more surprised than she is, then, when she’s activated from mandatory leave by an old colleague in Langley’s Russia Division. One of Lyndsey’s former assets from her Moscow agent-running days, Yaromir Popov, has turned up dead, and it has all the earmarks of an FSB assassination. Popov’s cover must have been blown by a CIA insider, either at Moscow Station or at Langley, and Lyndsey—intimately familiar with the asset and highly unlikely to have been involved—is assigned to uncover the leak. Her investigation inexorably crosses paths with “the Widow,” Theresa Warner, an analyst in the Russia Division whose service-legend husband was killed in action during an ill-fated operation two years earlier. First befriending Theresa, Lyndsey soon begins to suspect her, but as the analysis progresses, the web of treachery turns out to be far more intricate than it first appears.
One of spy fiction’s weirdest allures is the way it makes office politics so riveting. Red Widow is a sterling example; indeed, the story is comprised primarily of interactions within the institutional corridors of the intelligence world, as Lyndsey evaluates colleagues, trying to tell ally from enemy. Despite its internal, talky nature, the book simply flies by, its gripping plot clicking along efficiently through conversation, observation, and intelligence analysis. There’s striking verisimilitude to Katsu’s intelligence world, exhibited perhaps most strongly in the complexity of the interagency politics, as Lyndsey’s investigative legwork stretches beyond Langley to the broader alphabet soup of Washington spydom. Conceptually, Red Widow is a classic spy fiction mole hunt, and as such perhaps not groundbreaking in the genre. But it’s uncommonly convincing and exceptionally executed, with a relatable, engaging hero at its center.