A Female Spy Thriller that gets it Right

| Red Widow
Red Widow

BOOK REVIEW: Red Widow: A Novel / Putnam 

By: Alma Katsu

Reviewed by Alison Bouwmeester

THE REVIEWER —Alison P. Bouwmeester served for 28 years as a senior leader in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Operations. After retiring from the CIA, she spent nearly a decade as a senior business executive in the defense contracting industry. In 2018, Alison became a Certified Professional Career Coach and founded Futurity to coach others through career transitions.  She is the author of Mission: Career Transition.

REVIEW – As a female retired CIA Operations officer, I never had the chance to meet the author of Red Widow, Alma Katsu, but her own career at CIA drew me to read and review her book for The Cipher Brief. I was particularly interested because of the potential parallels between my career focus on operations in the former Soviet Union and Katsu’s protagonist’s career path.  I was interested to read about her assignments in Headquarters and the foreign field, and about her experiences as a female Ops Officer. I also wanted to see how female characters and the complicated culture of the Directorate of Operations would be portrayed by Katsu. I was not disappointed.

The story begins with the mysterious and dramatic death of a Russian man aboard a Washington, D.C- bound commercial airline flight. The investigation of this event sets into play the development of a set of characters, both Russian and American, who are familiar, likable (for the most part), and realistic. The scene settings described by the author, especially inside CIA Headquarters, are accurate and brought back lots of memories. Descriptions of the basement file room, the vaulted workspaces full of cubicles with matryoshka dolls and other chachki on the shelves, and the cafeteria courtyard – all felt very familiar.

The main character in the book is a woman named Lyndsey Duncan. She is a mid-level Operations Officer in the Directorate of Operations (DO) who has recently been returned to Headquarters “short of tour” from an assignment in the Middle East because of her close and continuing contact with a foreign intelligence officer (from Britain’s MI-6). Unlike most officers who are sent home “short” and then shuffled-off to a “purgatory job” for a few years, the special assignment Lyndsey is given leads her down an intriguing path investigating a damaging insider threat case with deadly consequences. Her work involves piecing together various information threads and operational leads, and then sorting through volumes of data to identify and eliminate potential espionage suspects. As the investigation unfolds, it takes many unexpected twists and turns. Lyndsey eventually sees firsthand the darker side of DO culture where, on rare occasion, a small and close-knit network of “old guard” sometimes “circle the wagons” to protect each other when rules are bent or broken rather than holding a “brother” accountable.

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What I liked most about this book was the author’s portrayal of how the different components of the Agency, the Intelligence Community and law enforcement work together, and the cultural differences and organizational rivalries that sometimes get in the way. I also admire the way the author introduced a range of intelligence professionals, including many strong and highly competent women, often in leadership positions in the CIA, the FBI and the Intelligence Community as a whole.

The book’s most capable and memorable characters include the female CIA protagonist Lyndsey Duncan and the female FBI Special Agent Sally Herbert, both of whom run a highly effective counter-espionage investigation, and also Kim Claiborne, the Deputy Director of Russia Division. Overall, the book’s characters are varied and well-developed. In contrast to many other spy thrillers, Red Widow does not rely on titillating and damaging stereotypes of women and tales of “sexpionage” to advance the story line. Rather, the book realistically and refreshingly portrays female intelligence officers as highly professional, capable and ethical. It was also a pleasure to read a book that accurately refers to employees of the CIA as “officers”, while the foreigners who spy on behalf of the U.S. government are called “agents”.

The weakest part of the story, in my opinion, was the rogue operation plot twist, which was beyond what I could ever imagine actually happening. I would like to believe that the internal checks-and-balances and deep-seeded code of ethics would prevent such a thing from ever taking place. I also struggled with the portrayed sympathetic connection between Lyndsey (the protagonist) and the character who is the prime suspect in the deadly counter-espionage investigation. This person committed terrible crimes directly resulting in the loss of agents’ lives — volunteering to spy on behalf of the Russians (among other things). I would find it difficult to feel much sympathy for this person, even given the tragic circumstances that precipitated the treasonous actions in the story.

I enjoyed reading Red Widow and I recommend it. It is entertaining and has elements of realism that an “outsider” would not be able to convey. This book also differs from others in the genre because of the high level of credibility of the author. She has walked the walk, writes well, and creates a compelling and interesting story. I appreciate the effort that went in to writing this book and look forward to reading Alma Katsu’s future works as well.

Red Widow earns a solid three out of four trench coats.


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