Author: Joseph Kanon
Kanon, Joseph (2017). Defectors: a novel. New York: Atria Books
- “From the bestselling author of Leaving Berlin and The Good German comes a fast-paced and richly imagined novel about an American spy, the Cold War’s most notorious defector, who gave up his country for the safety–and prison–of Moscow, but never lost his gift for betrayal. In 1949, Frank Weeks, fair-haired boy of the newly formed CIA, was exposed as a Communist spy and fled the country to vanish behind the Iron Curtain. Now, twelve years later, he has written his memoirs, a KGB- approved project almost certain to be an international bestseller, and has asked his brother Simon, a publisher, to come to Moscow to edit the manuscript. It’s a reunion Simon both dreads and longs for. The book is sure to be filled with mischief and misinformation; Frank’s motives suspect, the CIA hostile. But the chance to see Frank, his adored older brother, proves irresistible. And at first Frank is still Frank–the same charm, the same jokes, the same bond of affection that transcends ideology. Then Simon begins to glimpse another Frank, still capable of treachery, still actively working for “the service.” He finds himself dragged into the middle of Frank’s new scheme, caught between the KGB and the CIA in a fatal cat and mouse game that only one of the brothers is likely to survive. Defectors is the gripping story of one family torn apart by the divided loyalties of the Cold War, but it’s also a revealing look at the wider community of defectors, American and British, living a twilit Moscow existence, granted privileges but never trusted, spies who have escaped one prison only to find themselves trapped in another that is even more sinister. Filled with authentic period detail and moral ambiguity, Defectors takes us to the heart of a world of secrets, where no one can be trusted and murder is just collateral damage”– Provided by publisher.
- “From the bestselling author of Leaving Berlin and The Good German comes a fast-paced and richly imagined novel about an American spy, the Cold War’s most notorious defector, who gave up his country for the safety–and prison–of Moscow, but never lost his gift for betrayal”– Provided by publisher.
- FICTION / Suspense.
- FICTION / Espionage.
- FICTION / General.
Date Posted: October 20, 2017
Review by Jefferson Flanders
During the Cold War, several high-profile British Establishment figures defected to the Soviet Union, including Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and George Blake, but there were few American moles of similar prominence who fled to Moscow. Agents like Alger Hiss, Julius Rosenberg, and Morton Sobell denied their complicity in espionage and stayed to face prosecution (and conviction) in the United States. Two members of the Rosenberg spy ring—the relatively-obscure American scientists Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant—did make their way to Russia and held high leadership positions in the Soviet military-industrial complex. Their story is told in Steve Usdin’s masterful Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley.
In Defectors, Joseph Kanon has imagined what it might have been like if an American double agent, an Alger Hiss-like figure, a true believer in Marxism and world revolution, had decamped to the Socialist Paradise. It’s an intriguing premise, and Kanon has constructed a taut thriller around his defector, Frank Weeks, a Harvard-educated OSS veteran. Weeks had betrayed both his CIA colleagues and Latvian agents inserted behind the Iron Curtain during the early Cold War. The novel picks up his story years later, in 1961, as Weeks’s younger brother Simon, a successful New York publisher, arrives in Moscow. Simon has come to finalize the details on Frank’s about-to-be-published book, My Secret Life. (The KGB had encouraged the British defectors to write “tell-all” memoirs, largely as a propaganda exercise).
Simon is conflicted about seeing his brother, the infamous traitor. They were close during their Boston childhood, and Frank’s betrayal and defection had not only come as a surprise to Simon but also had ended his promising State Department career. Their relationship is captured perfectly in this brief back-and-forth:
”You never change. I can still read your face,” Frank said, a fond smile, the intimacy of drink.
“Yes? What’s it saying?”
“You’re worried. You don’t want to take your hand off the checker, until you’re sure. Remember how you used to do that? No move until you thought it was safe.”
Kanon deftly brings the other characters in Defectors to life: Frank’s wife, Joanna, who drinks to deal with the isolation of exile; Boris, the grim, proud KGB agent assigned to watch Frank; Pete DiAngelis, a CIA agent in Moscow who can’t hide his dislike of Frank and all he stands for; and Gareth Jones, a forlorn British defector not above informing on his fellow Westerners. While Defectors is well-plotted, never flagging, it is Kanon’s ability to illuminate the inner worlds of the people encountered in its pages that make it a novel well worth reading.
 Flanders, Jefferson, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2017,” accessed at http://www.jeffersonflanders.com/2017/01/top-spy-thrillers-and-espionage-novels-of-2017/
 Usdin, Steven T. (2005). Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin And Founded The Soviet Silicon Valley. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press