The Helsinki Affair by Anna Pitoniak

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The Helsinki Affair by Anna Pitoniak is a spy thriller. What separates Pitoniak’s novel from others of the genre is her female protagonists. Amanda Cole, daughter of Charlie Cole, long-time CIA operative, is assigned to Rome, where nothing ever happens. She is bored as deputy station chief and yearns for field work to advance her career.

One weekend, while her boss is away, a low-level Russian defector makes contact with Amanda, saying he has information that an American senator will be assassinated while in Cairo. The Russian is extremely frightened and needs protection. While her boss doubts the defector’s information, Amanda believes him. Her gut tells her he is telling the truth and should be taken seriously. However, since there is no proof to back up the defector’s story, her boss dismisses the story and does nothing. Then, the senator dies.

In the fallout from the senator’s death, Amanda becomes Rome’s head of station. She pursues the Russian operative and seeks proof of the validity of his story. She wants to know why the senator was killed and who ordered it.

At this point, the CIA director assigns legendary CIA agent Kath Frost to the Rome station to help Amanda. Kath is an analyst who works on tracking down double agents through deep dives into paperwork trails. She claims to have tracked down more double agents than anyone else in the agency’s history.

One of Amanda’s first moves is to interview the senator’s wife. She is given the notes that the senator was working on shortly before his trip to Cairo. Among those notes was a scrap of paper with her father’s name on it. Why was Charlie Cole’s name in the papers, and what did it signify? Amanda destroys that piece of paper out of family loyalty, but she can’t forget about it. The more she investigates, the more she wants to know why her father’s name was in those notes.

Amanda was raised by her mother, but the relationship between Charlie Cole and his daughter is an amiable one. Amanda’s parents were divorced after Charlie’s assignment to Helsinki at the beginning of the Cold War. Something happened in Helsinki—an affair maybe, but no one ever talks about it. After Helsinki, Charlie was withdrawn from the field and reassigned to Langley in the public relations office, a startling demotion!

What really happened in Helsinki and why was Charlie banished to Langley? What deep secrets are buried in his past? Were these only personal problems or were they more sinister professional ones?

As Amanda delves into the intrigue surrounding her Russian mole, she travels from Rome to London to St. Petersburg to Helsinki and to Washington pursuing her leads. She investigates Russian oligarchs, corporate blackmail and stock exchange fraud and memes.

The characters Amanda and Kath make the book. They are hard-nosed CIA agents who believe in their work. Amanda is especially troubled by the role of her father; what does he know about the Kremlin and how does he know it? She has family loyalty, but she is also loyal to her country.

Kath becomes a mentor to Amanda. She is 73, wears red cowboy boots and was a Cold War operative. As an experienced, no-nonsense agent, she is free to do things, such as call the director of the CIA John, that others wouldn’t dare to.

The two women are charming. Kath is colorful, Amanda colorless. Both are dedicated, hardworking, unmarried, childless but fiercely ambitious. In a man’s world, they stand out as unconventional agents, but highly intellectual and capable ones. Yet, they are tenderhearted, vulnerable and emotional. They are real.

Anna Pitoniak knows her business. She has written three previous novels before leaving Random House, where she worked as a senior editor. In The Helsinki Affair, she decided to write the kind of spy novel she would like to read. She said, “I badly wanted to find a female-centric version of Le Carré, a spy thriller with moral murkiness and elevated storytelling…If I couldn’t find this book, why didn’t I try writing it myself?”

And so, she did. The Helsinki Affair is the result. At times, the novel is slow, methodical and ponderous. It is in the style of John Le Carré and Graham Greene and not at all in the faster-paced novels of Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum. The characters are well drawn and fascinating, especially Kath. The plot twists and turns, goes forward and then backward, requiring the reader to pay close attention to the details of the story. But, oh, it is such a satisfying book to curl up with after a hard day. The book is one of the Washington Post’s Best Thrillers of 2023. It definitely deserves this honor.