Need to Know by Karen Cleveland
With three children in daycare and one in elementary school, Vivian Miller is already stressed, with her life revolving around her work as a CIA analyst and juggling childcare with her husband Matt. Matt calls to say that Ella’s sick and needs to be picked up within an hour, just before his photo shows up in the files of a Russian agent Vivian is tracking. This all happens in the first chapter, with the pace and suspense hardly letting up throughout the story. Can Vivian trust Matt? Will Omar, her colleague at the FBI, be able to help? What should Vivian tell her parents? Flashbacks to Vivian and Matt’s past, including a memorable first meeting, a surprise trip to Hawaii, then life as young parents, have her doubting their whole life together. Vivian would really like to stay home with the kids, but Matt logically urges her to keep her job, and to try for a promotion. I thought Vivian was rather easy to manipulate, but the author, a former CIA analyst, never gives her any easy choices. There’s not a lot of depth here, in either the characters or the plot, but this hard to put down thriller is a good readalike for The Expats by Chris Pavone. Movie rights have been sold, and Charlize Theron may produce and star in the film.
Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister
Widow Kate Warne becomes the first female Pinkerton agent in 1856 Chicago. Learning to pick locks, do surveillance, shoot a pistol, and to assume many disguises, Kate keeps having to prove herself in a man’s world. Kate helps prevent an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln, and frequently works undercover in Southern cities. I enjoyed reading about Kate’s interactions with the other Pinkerton agents, and with her landlady. This is a very suspenseful, compelling read, based on historical events, with complex, relatable characters. A good readalike for Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits With Gun, but with less family drama, this historical novel should be popular with book discussion groups.
Munich by Robert Harris
A gripping spy thriller about the Munich conference in September 1938 that averted war for a while. After taking over Austria, Germany wanted Sudetenland, an ethnically German section of Czechoslovakia. British Prime Minister Chamberlain flew to Munich with some of his staff and advisers to meet with Hitler, Mussolini, and French Prime Minister Daladier. Apparently, the British and French military weren’t yet ready for war, and Chamberlain was trying to prevent or at least delay England’s entry into war. Over the course of four very tense days, two junior staffers who met at Oxford try to exchange secret documents that could affect the conference’s outcome. Hugh Legat, one of Chamberlain’s secretaries, is the only German speaker of the British delegation, but is mostly stuck at the delegation’s hotel. Hugh is at the beginning of his career, and money is tight. By disobeying orders, he risks his career. In Berlin, his former classmate Paul van Hartmann is caught up in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, but his main role is to get to Munich with Hitler’s entourage, and transfer the documents to Chamberlain via Legat. Hartmann is under suspicion from the very beginning, and his life is in jeopardy. It’s fascinating to get glimpses of Hitler and Chamberlain, with their very different motivations and personalities, through the eyes of Legat and Hartmann. Hard to put down, although not as outstanding as his earlier novels Pompeii and Conclave.
The Expats: A Novel by Chris Pavone
Kate Moore leaves her State Department job when her techie husband Dexter gets a job offer from a private bank in Luxembourg. Now an expat American, she takes their two young sons, Jake and Ben, to private school, hangs out with the other expat moms, and waits for Dexter to come home from the office or yet another business trip. They do enjoy occasional weekend trips with the boys to other cities in Europe. Kate is bored and lonely, and becomes suspicious of their new American friends, Bill and Julia. Guiltily, Kate contacts a former colleague to make inquiries, and learns that her husband is under suspicion of stealing millions of Euros. Kate has her own secrets: she worked for the CIA, not the State Department, and was an operative in Mexico and Central America until shortly after Jake was born. Will Kate’s or Dexter’s pasts catch up with them, what secrets will be uncovered, and will love or money win the day? A building unease and suspense keep the pages turning, with the reader trying to figure out who’s telling the truth. But underneath is still a couple who love their sons and enjoy living in Europe. The author is a former cookbook editor who spent some time living in Luxembourg with his wife and twin sons, so the settings and scenes of family life ring true. A first novel, Expats was just awarded an Edgar Allan Poe award for best first mystery by an American author.