A superb new novel about defectors in Moscow

defectorsDefectors by Joseph Kanon

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The disappearance of British diplomats Donald MacLean and Guy Burgess in 1951 and the subsequent revelation in 1956 of them as defectors to the Soviet Union shocked the world and has subsequently provided fodder for a virtual cottage industry of spy novels. Only much later did it come to light that MacLean and Burgess were just two of the notorious Cambridge Five. Both men make cameo appearances in Joseph Kanon‘s terrific new spy novel, Defectors. 

The book opens in Moscow in 1961, where an American publisher named Simon Weeks is just arriving to visit his notorious brother, Frank. Twelve years earlier Frank had defected to the Soviet Union and became “the man who betrayed a generation.” Now he is writing a memoir that Simon’s firm will publish. Unaccountably, the KGB has granted Frank permission to write and publish the book.

Simon and Frank are the sons of a former senior New Deal official. They’re descendants of an eminent old New England family. Both are Harvard-educated because Harvard was, like so much else, a Weeks family tradition. Through childhood and adolescence, Simon idolized his older brother. He followed Frank to Harvard and then into the OSS in World War II. Now, the anger he felt when Frank defected in 1949 is surfacing again. Because of obvious omissions in the manuscript he received, Simon wonders how much of the truth Frank is telling. After all, as Simon learns very quickly, Frank remains a dedicated and active KGB officer, as he is quick to point out. But Simon can’t afford not to publish the book, which clearly will be a huge bestseller.

Putting aside his doubts and anger, Simon settles down to work on the memoir with his brother under the watchful eye of Frank’s minder and bodyguard, a KGB colonel. But Frank cooperates only marginally, interrupting to insist that Simon take time out to walk in the park with him and visit Moscow landmarks. It soon becomes clear that Frank has an ulterior motive: he wants Simon’s help to defect back to the United States. With great reluctance, Simon quickly becomes embroiled in a complex, mysterious, and perilous plot to help Frank and his ailing wife escape the Soviet Union. Kanon tells the tale with great attention to detail and deep regard for his characters. As in so many of his other bestselling books, the author has thoroughly researched his topic. He conjures up a picture of the Soviet Union under Nikita Khruschchev that is both chilling and credible.

If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 75 readable and revealing historical novels. You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

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Mal Warwick