Thursday Thriller: Red Widow by Alma Katsu
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons | Penguin Audio (March 10, 2020)
Length: 432 pages | 10 hrs and 10 mins
Red Widow is my third novel by Alma Katsu, and the first one that’s not a historical or supernatural horror. This book wasn’t all terrible, I suppose, but as a spy thriller, I thought it fell completely flat on its face. I also got the sense that maybe the author was in way over her head when it came to the genre or subject.
The story opens with an intriguing scene. On a flight from Moscow to the United States, a passenger suddenly falls ill and dies, despite the best efforts of the flight crew to save his life. And in a bedroom in Washington DC, a CIA operative named Lyndsey Duncan wakes up in the middle of the night to a phone call telling her to report to headquarters in Langley first thing in the morning. Having just been recalled from a mission in Lebanon for breaking some serious protocols, Lyndsey believes this means she is being dismissed from her position. However, she soon finds out that the meeting is to be with her old boss Eric Newman, and instead of firing her, he gives her a new assignment.
As it turns out, the man who died on the flight enroute from Moscow had been an important Russian asset, someone who was very close to Lyndsey from when she had been his handler back when she worked in Russian Division. Eric suspects that the spy had found out his identity was compromised, and was in the process of fleeing when his enemies caught up to him and poisoned him. In recent weeks, many of the CIA’s assets in Russia had been exposed, and Eric fears they may have someone on the inside giving away their secrets. Thus Lyndsey, with her reputation for being a human lie detector, became his first choice to flush out the mole.
Still reeling from her change of fortune, Lyndsey moves back into Russian Division, ready to get to work. She is reacquainted with some of her old colleagues, including Theresa Warner, known around the office as the Red Widow due to the death of her husband Richard, a highly ranked and CIA agent who was killed in an operation in Russia a few years back. The “Red” in her sobriquet refers to the color of her bright lipstick, and the fact that she still keeps her late husband’s blazing red Jaguar in his old parking spot, almost as a message to everyone to remind them of what she has lost. Now raising her young son alone, Theresa has a lot of anger towards the higher ups in the agency, whom she blames for failing Richard. Lyndsey is warned not to get too close to her, lest she catch any of the blowback.
Still, Lyndsey can’t help but be drawn to the widow, and soon, the two of them form a special kind of connection. But when Theresa gets some shocking news, reigniting her conflict with the CIA, Lydnsey will have to decide what to do about their friendship and how to proceed with the information she has learned.
This novel left me highly conflicted, because I usually enjoy Alma Katsu’s storytelling and think she writes great characters. Problem is, the entire premise of this book felt impractical and hardly convincing. Despite Red Widow being marketed as a spy thriller, in truth, there’s not much in the way of mystery, espionage, or even thrills in this. The story also feels as if it’s written by someone with a very shallow or naïve understanding of how spycraft actually works. So many things seem unrealistic or they just don’t add up. Neither Lyndsey or Theresa are believable as CIA. The mood around their headquarters also feels a lot like high school full of gossipy women and supervisors who sleep with their underlings. Everyone seems to go around just casually discussing classified information, with the excuse being, “Oh, we all have the same level of security clearance around here anyway” which is really not how that works, not to mention, ahem, YOU ARE TRYING TO HUNT A MOLE, LYNDSEY. Maybe try to show a little discretion?
Then there’s Theresa, who when we first meet her is this intimidating woman with a commanding presence. Her nickname is the Red Widow, for God’s sake. Sadly, that picture is quickly shattered long with any of my initial respect for her when it is soon revealed just how dumb she is. Though to be fair, she’s probably no dumber than most of the other characters in this book, none of whom seem to know anything about what real spying entails. Those elements come across as very rudimentary and paper-thin, and Lyndsey, for all that she is being touted as this amazing human lie detector, hardly uses any of her skills or does any real operative work to find the mole. The story is quite predictable on that front, because there’s really no finessing of the plot at all when the main character contributes nothing to solving the mystery and you are pretty much handed all the answers on a silver platter.
Ultimately, as much as I’ve enjoyed some of Katsu’s previous novels, I just can’t recommend this. If you’re looking for some light entertainment, I guess it’s all right, but if you have even the slightest experience with spy fiction, I think the story behind Red Widow is going to feel really half-baked and flimsy. Admittedly I’m no a big reader of this subgenre, but I still came away feeling frustrated and disappointed. That said, I’ll still happily follow the author’s future work and pick up her books, but yeah…probably not if it’s another spy thriller.