Sunday, February 18, 2024

The Helsinki Affair by Anna Pitoniak

Title: The Helsinki Affair
Author: Anna Pitoniak
Narrator: Amanda Dolan
Publication: Simon & Schuster, audiobook, 2023
Genre: Suspense/Espionage
Description: Amanda Cole is the CIA’s Deputy Station Chief in Rome and longs for a more exciting assignment. She gets her wish when a Russian comes to the embassy to share information on a plot to kill a prominent American senator. Amanda believes him but her boss, Osmond, is skeptical and forbids her to take action. When the senator dies and the CIA Director learns about the ignored warning, Amanda is promoted to Station Chief and starts trying to decipher a complicated financial plot created by the Russians to damage the US economy and a tangled history that stretches back to when her father, also CIA, was stationed in Helsinki years ago.

My Impression: The Helsinki Affair was one of the Washington Post’s best thrillers of 2023, and the review pointed out it was about two women who weren’t objectified, as was often the case in older books of the genre, which interested me. I enjoyed the way the story went back and forth from Amanda in the present to her father, Charlie, on assignment in Helsinki in the 80s. As Amanda digs into the mystery of the senator’s death, her father’s name comes up but he has merely been working in PR at the CIA for many years so she doesn’t see how he could be involved. Helping her brainstorm and sift through documents is Kath Frost, a long-time CIA professional whose knowledge of the Soviets is extensive and is expert at extracting information from documents. Although Kath intimidates many of her CIA colleagues with her gravelly voice and big personality, she and Amanda hit it off, feeding off each other as they try to unravel the conspiracy with their different strengths. Kath is also the only person Amanda can confide worries about her father’s involvement and, in turn, Kath provides candid feedback when she thinks Amanda is making mistakes. They work backwards from the Senator’s death to identify the source of the information that killed him:
“This isn’t easy to say, Mrs. Vogel, but I want to get right to the point. We have reason to believe Senator Vogel didn’t die of a stroke.”

She blinked at Gasko once, then twice.

“More specifically, he continued, “we have intelligence suggesting that Russian operatives in Cairo administered a lethal chemical agent, which caused symptoms that are designed to mimic those of a stroke. We are reasonably certain this was an assassination.”

She was silent for a while. Then she said, “That makes sense.”
Two things that puzzled me: first, the Russian whistleblower thinks Amanda’s surname is Clarkson, because embassy cover is Amanda Clarkson, an economic specialist for the State Department. Fine, but surely if the Russians investigated her, they could have found out her real name and identity? If they were watching her father, they would already know her occupation or at least be more than ordinarily suspicious of her when she enters Russia, especially as she has once entered as herself. Second, Amanda tells her Russian whistleblower, Semenov, she does not speak Russian (7), and that if he wants to speak to her in Russian, they’ll have to wait for an interpreter. It is surprising she did not pick it up after living in Russia in her 20s for several months before joining the CIA but there wasn't any need to lie.  However, by page 311, she speaks Russian well enough to understand angry people yelling. Nor do I know how Amanda manages to read Cyrillic (probably harder than conversational Russian) but when Semenov sends her “emails, memos, other bureaucratic flotsam and jetsam” (100), she is able to skim memos in Russian. Hmmm.  In other areas, however, the author did tie up a lot of loose ends very satisfactorily.
This was a fast-paced and enjoyable book with layers upon layers of espionage, conspiracy, betrayal, terror, and some very well-developed characters. The Helsinki Affair is my second book of the year for Carol’s Cloak and Dagger Challenge.

Source: Library.


Sam said...

Interesting book. I enjoy that kind of thing a lot, but had to chuckle a bit at your well-taken points punching a couple of holes in the narrative/character development. I think I'll take a look at this one for later.

CLM said...

I think you would like it. I also appreciated that the conclusion is a bit ambiguous - there could be a sequel but it's not necessary for the story.

TracyK said...

This is one I will definitely have to try, when I can get a copy. I am glad you reviewed it and put it on my radar, although I skimmed some of your review because I especially like to go into espionage fiction knowing as little as possible.

CLM said...

I agree, Tracy, sometimes when I know I plan to read a book I try only to read enough of the review to be sure I would like it. Of course, sometimes by the time I get around to a book, I forget having read a review or who recommended it, which is a pity. There is a place in Goodreads where one can put a private note to oneself - in the past, I wrote things like, "Library doesn't own!" or "Very hard to find!" but I just started including if I read a review.