The Helsinki Affair

Image of The Helsinki Affair
Release Date: 
November 14, 2023
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

Yes, it really is possible to move espionage fiction away from the heritage of John Le Carré. Perhaps it should be no surprise that to do so, Anna Pitoniak’s fourth novel offers a 40-year-old woman as the protagonist. But the force and revelations of The Helskini Affair root in dysfunctional marriages and enduring love, especially that of a daughter for her father.

Amanda Cole is a CIA officer whose father Charlie worked for the agency in Europe during the Cold War. Her rapidly rising career is due entirely to her own skills—some of which developed as a child of divorced parents. Few know she’s related to Charlie, as her work name differs from his.

When the covert assassination of a US senator puts some scraps of paper about Russian influence into Amanda’s hands, she teams up with the legendary analyst Kath Frost to track who’s betraying which nations, and how. The two women develop an intimacy of thought, without complication. Oddly, however, Amanda’s father’s name had been on one of those scraps, until the moment he destroyed it in front of her.

While Amanda uses hard-won information and her people skills to deepen the efforts of a Russian spy willing to assist her investigations, she also holds the “ticking bomb” of her father’s involvement in something that must have been problematic. A question to her mother reveals an affair in Helsinki that shattered the Cole marriage.

“Amanda had heard rumors about her father’s departure from Helsinki in 1990. Charlie had always claimed that he had requested the transfer; that he was burned out by the Clandestine Service; that he was ready to come home for good. But the transfer, inevitably, carried the suggestion of disgrace. Amanda had always suspected there was more to the story.”

Pitoniak’s tale of double and triple agents unfolds through double (even triple) narratives, as Amanda’s present-day investigation alternates with the events that led to her father’s downfall. The two lines of revelation don’t actually cross until late in the novel, while the confused loyalties of Amanda’s own “source” become the threat she’s scurrying to counter.

Count on realistic and compelling storytelling here, with Pitoniak’s own level of craft well polished. A possible flaw to the book—depending on how dark you like your noir, and whether you prefer a clear victory to a muddled one—is the author’s finale. Without spoiling the details, a post-case assessment would have to conclude that Amanda (unlike, yes, George Smiley) hasn’t sacrificed much of her own comfort to achieve her results. The last scenes embrace a strange choice of character and a set of vague hints about the future.

The Helsinki Affair doesn’t question the morality of either espionage or opposed world powers. That places it in the line of nicely paced genre fiction. For a weekend’s relaxation, it’s a solid choice of entertainment.