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Red Widow


Red Widow

When it comes to espionage novels, there are three types that complement the genre: those that are fun to read but not detailed enough that some curious minds might want to experience; those whose authors have had a stellar career serving in the intelligence community but are a little stiff with their storytelling, so you get a fully detailed work that reads like an espionage textbook; and those that perfectly blend the two styles. Fortunately, RED WIDOW falls into the third category.

Alma Katsu has enjoyed enormous success with back-to-back horror novels, THE HUNGER and THE DEEP, but slips into the espionage genre so easily with her latest effort. My surprise quickly turned to awe and respect when I learned of her background in the intelligence community, which included 35 years as an intelligence analyst for agencies like the FBI, NSA and global think tank RAND. Quite simply, she knows her stuff and already has proven that she can write an engaging thriller.

"The plot never allows you to catch your breath as the wheels keep turning with every new piece of information uncovered, and nothing is as it appears to be."

An overweight gentleman is clearly showing discomfort during a flight to Washington, D.C. After intervention by flight attendants, pilots and eventually EMTs, he succumbs to whatever condition he was suffering from. We quickly learn that this was no ordinary passenger; the deceased is Yaromir Popov, a member of Russian intelligence for 30 years and a double agent for the U.S. Despite being on administrative leave, Lyndsey Duncan is awakened by a late-night phone call from her division head, Eric Newman, who needs her to come back to the office at once. As soon as she arrives, he informs her that the foreign agent she had once turned to and considered a father figure has passed away suddenly.

It is now Lyndsey’s assignment to rejoin the Russian Division of the CIA and find out what happened. If foul play was involved, the CIA would need to know if the Russians were behind it or if a mole is within their ranks. Theresa Warner is one of the first colleagues to welcome her as she settles into her extremely small office. Lyndsey is later informed that Theresa has been given the nickname “Red Widow,” not only because she loves the color red, but because she is still mourning the loss of her CIA director husband, Richard.

Lyndsey is briefed by a small group of CIA leaders that her role is to ferret out the potential mole in their own backyard by taking a hard look at each of her colleagues. It’s not long before she learns of the untimely death of Popov’s teenage daughter, who she also knew, from an alleged drug overdose. As Lyndsey looks further into Popov, she finds an email he sent her just days prior to his death where he expresses his desire to talk to her. Guilt overwhelms her and drives her forward to avenge his death.

Toxicology reports indicate that there was nothing suspicious in Popov’s system, but the hint of a certain chemical might show that he was killed by someone who knew how to hide the fact that he was drugged. The body count continues to rise when Kulakov, another Russian agent with whom they worked, is found dead. Newman now knows that this is an all-out attack on the CIA’s Russian Division, and Lyndsey must step it up before more allies fall.

Lyndsey is also warned off by someone in the office about befriending the “Red Widow” as she is not to be trusted. She does not initially take this advice to heart as she finds Theresa to be genuine and even spends time with her and her young son outside of the agency. She needs a friend as a rumor has spread about her having had an illicit affair while she was on assignment in Beirut prior to her home leave. Lyndsey understands that this was only planted in order to deflect her from the goals of the mission she has been given, but it still hurts. She also meets up with the most recent “handler” of Popov, an agent named Tom Cassidy; although she does not feel that he is a threat, she cannot completely rule him out.

As Lyndsey’s mission converges with Theresa’s own agenda, which primarily includes finding her missing husband, the situation will get quite muddled. The reader’s head will be spinning, along with Lyndsey’s, as there is a web of deceit so well-spun that it may be impossible to untangle without herself falling victim to those who spun it. The plot never allows you to catch your breath as the wheels keep turning with every new piece of information uncovered, and nothing is as it appears to be.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on April 2, 2021

Red Widow
by Alma Katsu

  • Publication Date: March 1, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
  • ISBN-10: 0525539425
  • ISBN-13: 9780525539421