Novel: The Helsinki Affair by Anna Pitoniak

The latest supply for my spy-fiction fix comes from Anna Pitoniak, whose The Helsinki Affair (2023) contains all the classic elements of the genre while infusing it with a fresh perspective and welcome, unfamiliar settings. The novel’s capable protagonist is Amanda Cole, a young CIA officer stationed in Italy who happens to be on duty—and on her game—when the unlikely happens: a Russian source arrives at the American embassy in Rome, warning of an imminent assassination attempt on a US senator. The walk-in’s intelligence is credible, but discounted by Amanda’s risk-averse superior, leading to her rapid promotion when the tip proves accurate. As new station chief in Rome, Amanda cultivates her new asset and investigates the senator’s murder. The trail leads her to her father Charlie, a former field officer in his own right, now warming a desk in Langley as a PR flack. Charlie’s name turns up in the dead senator’s notes, and while he admits to Amanda that he’s connected to the case, he won’t say how, clearly concealing long-ago sins. This puts Amanda in a delicate position, tip-toing around the skeletons in her father’s closet while also doing right by her career, unraveling an international conspiracy of financial fraud and murderous treachery.

The Helsinki Affair is a brisk, effortless read sure to please fans of the genre’s trademark institutional drama, procedural mystery-solving, and race-against-time action. Pitoniak clearly has a firm grasp on spy fiction tropes, but doesn’t succumb to its sexist pitfalls or overfamiliar character dynamics. The family ties complicating Amanda’s dilemma are adroitly negotiated, while Amanda herself proves a formidable hero, as is her old-hand, analyst mentor Kath Frost—a character, incidently, with spy-legend potential in the vein of George Smiley or Jackson Lamb. Pitoniak doesn’t seem to be an espionage enthusiast first and foremost; her backlist contains what appear to be a number of mystery/suspense titles. But it’s clear that she plays extremely well in this sandbox, so I hope she returns; meanwhile, it’s tempting to see what else she has in her repertoire.

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