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Book Review: The Helsinki Affair by Anna Pitoniak

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By Simon Demetriou

Having recently read a spy novel also published by Simon & Schuster, which fell disappointingly short of the bar set by genre-definers like Le Carré and Greene, I was tentative about picking up the latest thriller offering from the same publisher by Anna Pitoniak. Thankfully, my apprehensions were quickly dispelled, asThe Helsinki Affair takes intricately woven globe-trotting intrigue and adds to it by foregrounding brilliant female characters that flourish in the male-dominated world of espionage.

Amanda Cole is deputy chief of the CIA station in Rome, a job she resents for being too dull and too comfortable. That all changes when a Russian translator walks in and declares knowledge of a Russian plot to assassinate US senator Bob Vogel. Amanda knows the source is telling the truth; her station chief disagrees. Needless to say, Amanda’s right, and when she is moved up to station chief and into the driving seat of uncovering the web of conspiracy that led to Vogel’s death, she is driven into the hi-tech world of market manipulation and back into the messy tradecraft of the Cold War.

Linking past and present is Amanda’s father, Charlie Cole, who from a bright career as a CIA field officer was brought back to Langley in the late 80s following ‘the disaster that was Helsinki’. Now, with only a year left till retirement, he has to confront his past and rely on his daughter for redemption.

Faced with unravelling clandestine events more than three decades in the making, Amanda is given the assistance of Kath Cole, 73-year-old CIA legend and analytical savant, who acts as the counterpoint to Amanda’s restless love of clandestine field work. Together, the women drive a plot that moves from Rome, to Langley, to Helsinki, to Moscow, and to London, all culminating in a twist that, while not totally unforeseeable, is sharp enough to make a reader nod appreciatively at the narrative skill that led to it.

As well as being pacy and well-plotted, Pitoniak’s novel manages to include a cast of well-drawn and evocative secondary characters, and noir-y dialogue that manages to be fresh and formulaic at the same time. My one complaint is the treatment of Amanda’s alcoholism, which she seems to pick up and throw off with about the level of difficulty one might put away a winter coat in springtime. But when a story is as engaging as The Helsinki Affair, it would be a spoilt and churlish reader who would actually quibble over this barely relevant detail. So let’s pretend I never mentioned it.

 

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