Quick Review: RED WIDOW by Alma Katsu (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

When you work in a building of smoke & mirrors, everyone and everything should be questioned…

The story of two women CIA agents whose paths become intertwined around a threat to the Russia Division – one that’s coming from inside the agency.

Lyndsey Duncan worries her career with the CIA might be over. After lines are crossed with another intelligence agent during an assignment, she is sent home to Washington on administrative leave. So when a former colleague — now Chief of the Russia Division — recruits her for an internal investigation, she jumps at the chance to prove herself. Lyndsey was once a top handler in the Moscow Field Station, where she was known as the “human lie detector” and praised for recruiting some of the most senior Russian officials. But now, three Russian assets have been exposed — including one of her own — and the CIA is convinced there’s a mole in the department. With years of work in question and lives on the line, Lyndsey is thrown back into life at the agency, this time tracing the steps of those closest to her.

Meanwhile, fellow agent Theresa Warner can’t avoid the spotlight. She is the infamous “Red Widow,” the wife of a former director killed in the field under mysterious circumstances. With her husband’s legacy shadowing her every move, Theresa is a fixture of the Russia Division, and as she and Lyndsey strike up an unusual friendship, her knowledge proves invaluable. But as Lyndsey uncovers a surprising connection to Theresa that could answer all of her questions, she unearths a terrifying web of secrets within the department, if only she is willing to unravel it…

I haven’t read all of Katsu’s previous works, but as a long-time lover for espionage fiction, I knew I had to read this as soon as I could. I’m very glad to report that it is an engaging, twisty espionage novel set in the halls of Langley and D.C. I enjoyed this a lot.

Much has been made in the press surrounding Red Widow about the fact that Katsu worked as an intelligence analyst for decades. Despite being familiar with the author for years, I hadn’t picked up on this until the buzz for Red Widow began. The novel is packed with details of tradecraft. So much of the work conducted by the characters is administrative and research-based, rather than what one might find in an action movie (or almost any other CIA novel that I’ve read). True, the characters are based at CIA headquarters and aren’t field operatives (at present, at least). Therefore, Red Widow had a very different feel to many of the espionage novels I’ve read recently, and a more measured pace. It’s a distinction that I very much welcomed.

Despite the lack of action, the novel is no less gripping and engaging. It is, instead, a character-focused story. It’s told predominantly from Lyndsey’s and Theresa’s perspectives, with just a couple of additional POV chapters. Working at CIA means operating in a separate world, but one governed by many of the same human qualities that influence our behaviour in more “regular” walks of life. Through Lyndsey’s and Theresa’s eyes, we learn more about how the Agency operates, how it is rife with office politics (which, given the work, can have deadly real-world consequences), and how its employees are just as prone to pettiness and error. Lyndsey’s investigation, in particular, offers us a glimpse at the ways in which personal agendas can twist the inner workings of CIA.

Given the different ages of the two protagonists, we also get some insight into the ways in which CIA is changing — older agents and specialists are being phased out, while younger and more ambitious agents are charging up the institutional ladder. It’s not just the CIA employees who are changing with time. The novel has plenty of details about how the espionage “game” has changed (or stayed the same) since the end of the Cold War. Katsu sprinkles in some excellent commentary on the state of contemporary international relations, too.

I really enjoyed the way Katsu has approached the genre. As already mentioned, it’s a novel with slower pace, one that focuses on the human elements of espionage — in particular, the person costs of living and working in the clandestine services. The ending leaves open the possibility for a sequel, which is something I would very much welcome.

If you’re a fan of espionage fiction, then I would definitely recommend you give Red Widow a try.


Alma Katsu’s Red Widow is out now, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in North America and in the UK.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter
Review copy received via Edelweiss

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