Cover image of "Red Widow," a novel about a CIA veteran who leads a mole hunt

A Russian businessman dies on a plane from JFK to Washington National Airports. It seems to be a heart attack. But Lyndsey Duncan knows better. It was clearly poison. And the man was no businessman. He was, instead, a high-ranking officer in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the FSB. A ten-year CIA veteran, Lyndsey had recruited Yaromir Popov as a high-level asset when in Moscow on her first overseas assignment. The man had proven to be the most productive asset in the agency’s recent history, and Lyndsey had gained stature and notoriety as a result. But she has thrown it away by an affair with an MI6 officer on her next assignment, in Beirut.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Lyndsey’s now back in Langley, under investigation for collusion with a foreign intelligence officer. So, she is shocked when Eric Newman, Chief of Russia Division, calls her back from administrative leave. He places her in charge of an investigation to find out who in the CIA has revealed Popov’s identity to the Russians. Because the poison that killed Popov was often used by the FSB. Thus begins the long, complex saga of Alma Katsu’s revealing novel of contemporary espionage, The Red Widow.

An insider’s view of the CIA

Most popular English-language spy novels focus on the interaction between officers of the CIA or British Intelligence and their Russian or East German counterparts. After all, that’s where the action is (or at least is purported to be). But The Red Widow is different. In its focus on a mole hunt, the story that unfolds takes place largely within the walls of the CIA. As Lyndsey pursues first one line of inquiry, then another, we gain an intimate glimpse of how most of the agency’s 20,000 employees really spend their time. It’s a picture that any CIA veteran would recognize.

Not to put too fine an edge on it, they sit at desks, shuffle papers, type away at computers, play office politics, and gossip both online and by the proverbial water-cooler. The much smaller number of CIA officers stationed in embassies overseas may have contact with foreign adversaries. But that doesn’t happen in Langley.

Red Widow by Alma Katsu (2021) 352 pages ★★★★★ 

Image of Vladimir Putin with FSB special forces soldiers
President Vladimir Putin—the “Hard Man” of the novel—with special forces soldiers of the FSB, the Russian Federal Security Agency at the center of this story. Image: BBC News

One surprise after another

For Lyndsey Duncan, Eric Newman’s assignment is problematic. Friends are nowhere in sight. She’s under a cloud because of her transgression in Lebanon. But one woman proves friendly, and they hit it off well. She’s Theresa Warner, known as The Widow, or sometimes as The Red Widow for the brilliant scarlet lipstick she favors. Her husband, CIA veteran Richard, had been killed by the FSB in Moscow during an operation to exfiltrate a valuable asset. And despite her compassion for Theresa, Lyndsey feels a nagging doubt of suspicion about The Widow’s behavior. Something doesn’t seem quite right. So, you won’t be surprised when it turns out that Theresa really has colluded with the Russians. The novel’s title implies as much. But there are other surprises in store for you. Lots of them.

The CIA’s tragic history of mole hunts

Ever since John le Carré used the term in his bestselling 1974 novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, double agents within an intelligence service have been known as “moles.” And American intelligence—the CIA, FBI, DIA, and NSA—have all had the embarrassing experience of finding moles within their ranks, as have the British. In The Red Widow, Katsu names some of the most prominent of these double agents. But the CIA’s worst episode in the search for moles, unsuccessful though it was, nearly sank the agency.

From 1954 to 1975, James Jesus Angleton (1917-87) served as the CIA’s Counterintelligence Chief. In 1961, a Soviet defector named Anatoliy Golitsyn (1926-2008) made a number of dubious claims. He insisted that British Prime Minister Harold Wilson (1916-95) was a KGB agent and that the CIA harbored a high-ranking mole. Despite others’ doubts, Angleton was persuaded. And he proceeded to unleash a mole hunt of enormous proportions that lasted until his resignation at the end of 1974. The effort wrecked careers, destroyed morale, and may have been one of the factors that convinced Congress to investigate the agency—an investigation that brought to light the CIA’s scandalous behavior overseas.

About the author

Image of Alma Katsu, author of this novel about a CIA veteran and a mole hunt in the agency

According to her entry on Wikipedia, author Alma Katsu (1959-) “had a 29-year career in the US federal government working in a number of positions dealing with intelligence and foreign policy, with an emphasis on technology issues. Since 2012 she has worked as a senior policy analyst for the RAND Corporation.” Red Widow is the most recent of her six novels. Although her bio doesn’t reveal specifics about where she worked in government, she herself may well be a CIA veteran.

I’ve posted my review of this novel’s sequel, Red London (Red Widow #2), at A joint MI6-CIA operation targets Russian oligarchs in London.

This is one of The best books of 2021 and one of The best Russian mysteries and thrillers.

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