I’m pretty biased as a fiction person, myself. I occasionally read other things, but only rarely. So it’s pure coincidence that, upon finding Spy Dust on the list of review options, I recognized one of the authors’ names as someone I’d read before, in his first book The Master Of Disguise (which, by the way, I recommend to those who enjoy this book). I knew from that moment that I could expect an exciting and interesting look at the spy game, the way it’s actually played. I didn’t realize I’d get a love story in the deal. Needless to say, I was happily surprised – and I think you will be, too.
Tony Mendez, as the book opens in 1987, is Chief of Disguise in the CIA. It’s been two years since his first wife Karen died of cancer, and he’s buried himself in his work. An artist by calling, he designs and builds the disguises that will protect foreign intelligence agents and case officers around the world against communist counterintelligence forces. Lately, however, he’s been hearing that the old “silver bullets,” techniques developed for use in Moscow, the most important and dangerous intelligence arena in the world, have been failing. Surveillance appears out of nowhere, agents and case officers are “rolled up” (arrested and executed after interrogation and torture), and the KGB suddenly seems to know the CIA’s every move, almost before they make it. Tony desperately needs to find out how the KGB knows what they know – and how to elude them when they seemingly know and see everything. For this he’s going to rely on a team of “Wizards” – scientists, thinkers, computer gurus, and some of the best of Hollywood’s special effects and makeup artists – and on a very select team of case officers, led by himself and one other expert.
Jonna Goeser is a technical officer on the Asian subcontinent, specializing in disguise, documentation falsification, and clandestine photography. She’s also going through a long, slow drift from her husband John, another officer in the CIA. Things haven’t been right between them for a long time, but she has little reason to complain; she likes her home and her life, even if she no longer feels the same about the man she married. But her more immediate concern is her mission, and her superior, a man who doesn’t feel women belong in the CIA. After completing her job successfully despite her supervisor, she’s asked by her friend Tony Mendez to join him, thereby working for a team and a supervisor she can trust, and getting a chance at the dream of most CIA operatives: Moscow.
From Indochina and the Asian subcontinent (certain details, such as names and places, remain blurred for continuing security reasons) to Havana and finally to Moscow, Tony and Jonna reveal the real techniques and operations used to elude counterintelligence in communist countries, and take us on a mental and physical journey to find the source of the KGB’s sudden omniscience. The choices are many: highly placed moles, “ghost” surveillance teams, and even a nearly-invisible electromagnetic powder than can be traced from great distances and used to track everyone from foreign operatives to Russian citizens – spy dust. And even as they near their objective, Tony and Jonna find themselves fighting another potential hazard: their growing feelings for each other.
The narration here is excellent, skillfully switching as needed between Tony and Jonna’s point of view. In this manner, we get a more complete picture of the complex tactics and techniques that contributed to the successes of this superb team. Through this tapestry of intrigue and suspense, a thread of romance is woven as Tony and Jonna realize and deal with their new feelings for each other. Without crossing the line of good taste, the authors give us intimate glimpses of moments and thoughts that mark their journey toward each other. As the tension of the situation in Moscow mounts, so does the that of their relationship, and both resolve most satisfyingly by the final page.
As an additional comment, I believe that, without intending to do so, Spy Dust makes a strong case for older heroes and heroines than romance readers are accustomed to seeing. While this book is not primarily a romance, the emotion of the authors is palpable and touching, and far more romantic than a great number of the novels I’ve read lately. Both authors are in their 40’s as the book opens, and both are intelligent, compassionate people of strong characters and amazing competence. Having read Tony’s previous book, I was familiar with the quick-witted and quietly courageous “hero.” Reading Spy Dust showed him to me in a new light, through Jonna’s loving gaze, as a handsome and intensely caring man. Similarly, meeting Jonna at the beginning of the book, I was impressed by the thoroughly professional, resourceful and creative “heroine” who could put most kick-ass heroines I’ve read before to shame. As Tony’s love for her grew more and more apparent, his vision of her revealed a woman who was also beautiful and full of energy and love. The unique format provided a love story that was as powerful as, or more powerful than many novels I’ve read, all the while telling a tale of an intellectual battle of incredibly high stakes.
For anyone who loves spy novels, this is a must-read. And for everyone else, I recommend this highly. It’s an excellent story, even if it really did happen.