The Washington Times ran my On Crime column on Alma Katsu’s spy novel Red London.
You can read the column via the below link or the below text:
Alma Katsu’s “Red London,” the second spy thriller in a series that began with “Red Widow,” is a well-written and fascinating look at a CIA officer and a Russian oligarch in post-Putin London.
Having served many years as a CIA and NSA analyst, Ms. Katsu (seen in the above photo) captures the mystique and mystery of the shadowy world of espionage. The novel also offers a look at the Russian oligarchs and how they live in London.
I contacted Ms. Katsu and asked her how she would describe the spy novel.
“’Red London’ is the second book in my Lyndsey Duncan series, but it can be read as a stand-alone. It’s set in London and is told partly by the British wife of a Russian oligarch. There’s been a regime change in Russia and, after a home invasion, and the wife worries that her husband is not on good terms with the new Russian president,” Ms. Katsu said.
“He was close to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, and no one would’ve dared come after him in Putin’s day. At the same time, Lyndsey — who’s just arrived in London to start a new assignment — is asked to infiltrate the oligarch’s household in order to try to flip the wife. CIA and MI6 believe the new Russian president is up to no good and they want to take the oligarch’s billions off the table. But since it’s all stored in offshore accounts, they need someone on the inside with access to the data. They think the wife is an excellent candidate and Lyndsey is sent to make it happen.”
Is your character Lyndsey Duncan autobiographical or based on a real person?
“Lyndsey is not autobiographical, but I drew on my experiences working with many great, smart women in the Intelligence Community to create her. I’ve been particularly impressed by the younger generation: I was a recruiter for the Agency for a while and got to meet all these amazing young women who were super accomplished and could’ve found great success wherever they went, and they wanted passionately to work for [the] CIA. Those are the type of people you get to work with at Langley.”
How would you describe Lyndsey Duncan?
“She’s smart and extremely hard-working. She’s virtuous: she always does the right thing. She’s grateful to the Agency for giving her a life she never imagined, a way to leave the small town she came from,” Ms. Katsu explained. “Like many in the Intelligence Community, she puts her job first, which means she doesn’t have much of a personal life and is just starting to question that. She’s beginning to see that a life in intelligence asks a lot of you but doesn’t always reward in equal measure.”
Mikhail Rotenberg is an interesting character. How would you describe him?
“In many ways, Mikhail is a typical oligarch: he’s educated and from a family of elites, perhaps not rich but connected to the right people. He saw an opportunity to make money and took it, despite the fact that it often was not on the up-and-up,” Ms. Katsu said. “He’s trying to buy respectability by sponsoring charities and living a glamorous life, but at heart he’s an unpleasant man who is used to exercising power over everything and everyone he comes in contact with. I spent some time in my career studying autocrats and so I gave him a bit of that incredible hubris — except he is not at the top of the totem pole and even someone that powerful has to defer to the man at the top, which was Putin but, in the Red world, is the new Russian president, Viktor Kosygin.”
“I spent 25 years with [the National Security Agency] and 10 with [the] CIA, and a couple years at RAND. Most of that time was spent as an analyst but the last decade or so I’ve primarily worked in emerging technologies, both as a forecaster and in the weeds in the field of quantitative analytics,” Ms. Katsu said.
“It was a broad career with a lot of interaction with policymakers and the military and gave me a good sense of how it all works together, how some small development in an overlooked corner of the world might end up having huge implications. But it also gave me plenty of time to see what a career in intelligence does to you as a person, to your family. How it changes you, not always for the better. My first novel wasn’t published until I was 50, and I didn’t start writing spy novels until I retired from government.”
Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers.
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