“Need to Know” (Ballantine Books), by Karen Cleveland
The domestic thriller melds with the spy novel in Karen Cleveland’s entertaining and quite plausible “Need to Know.”
Espionage novels don’t usually deal with family issues, child-rearing and money woes while tacking national security, treason and sleeper cells. But Cleveland, a former CIA analyst, pulls together a tight tale.
Analyst Vivian Miller spends her long workday searching the computer for evidence of sleeper cells as part of a CIA team in the Counterintelligence Center, Russia Division. The job is stressful, as is her home life. Fortunately, her husband, Matt, works mainly from home, so he can pick up the kids, make dinner and oversee homework.
Then Vivian finds Matt’s photograph buried deep in a sleeper cell file, and her life as she knows it blows up. Is Matt a spy? Is their marriage a sham? Is he really the doting husband and father who seems to love his family unconditionally?
Cleveland eschews the usual spy-craft for the drama of the workplace and the home. In trying to keep her household together, Vivian commits an act of treason that at best would send her to prison. Instead of guns and chases found in most spy novels, Vivian deals with furtive glances, thumb drives and clandestine computer programs. At home, talks about Russian sleeper cells are held amid household duties and child care. And espionage novels seldom touch on money programs and health insurance. Vivian and Matt are just making ends meet, and health insurance is a must for one of their twins, who has a heart problem.
The strength in “Need to Know” is how seamlessly Cleveland pairs the espionage aspect - complete with clandestine meetings on the proverbial park bench - with domestic life. Cleveland makes the reader care very much about the Miller family.
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