In 1949, CIA agent Frank Weeks is outed as a traitorous communist spy. He manages to escape capture and ends up in Russia. Fast forward 12 years and his younger brother Simon finds himself landing in Moscow to help edit Frank’s KGB-approved book about his life as a spy. Simon heads a struggling publishing company, having been forced to leave his State Department job after Frank’s betrayal, and this book is a coup for him. But Simon has also been briefed by the CIA on what to watch out for when dealing with his brother and any Soviet officials he might end up meeting.
After an initially joyful, albeit low-key, reunion with Frank and his wife, Simon finds himself walking a thin line between familial devotion and work on the book, while trying to avoid being unwittingly used as a pawn by either side of the Cold War.
Alongside other like-minded traitors in Moscow, Frank is tolerated by his Soviet superiors but is not trusted or fully accepted. He has minders who watch over him and exists in what is just a different kind of prison. When Frank drops a bombshell of a revelation on him and asks for his help, Simon is inextricably drawn into events he’d rather not be party to. Can Simon trust his brother or is this another game designed to prove Frank’s continued worth to the communists? In the end, choices are made, actions are taken, and lives are irrevocably changed, for better or for worse.
Like a lot of spy novels set during the Cold War, Defectors is short on extended explosive action sequences. But Joseph Kanon crafts an intensely oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere that fuels the story’s narrative. You can feel the edgy despair from Frank and his wife as well as their fellow traitors. This more than compensates for any scarcity of bodies and bullets. The book doesn’t ask you to sympathize with those who betrayed their countries, but does subtly ask the question whom you trust when everyone around you has proven just how untrustworthy they actually are?