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Need to Know by Karen Cleveland – Review

January 28, 2018

Need to Know is one of the most anticipated thrillers I’ve come across in years. Almost a year before publication date, it was reported that the movie rights had been sold and Charlize Theron will produce and star in the film adaptation. With such hype you might think any reading of the novel is bound to be a disappointment, but my initial reaction was one of surprise. Surprise that such a slow-burning intelligent spy novel could still be such a massive hit in an age of repetitive and action-driven vacuous franchises.

In Need to Know, Vivian Miller is a CIA counter-Intelligence analyst who seems like she has it all: a high-powered career tracking Russian sleeper cells in the US and a nice house perfect for raising her four kids with her loving, handsome husband Matt. But it’s not long before things start to unravel. A secret dossier at work reveals her husband is a Russian spy. She buries the evidence while she decides what to do. Cleveland gives us flashbacks to Vivian’s early relationship with Matt and how it developed. Suddenly, the mysteries of his character are beginning to make sense. Why did he always cancel planned visits for them to meet his parents at the last minute? Where did all of his money come from? The idea that you can never really know your partner is hardly new to the genre, and just when I thought this was going to be Gone Girl at Langley the story takes another turn. Vivian’s efforts to conceal her husband Matt’s true identity from her employers get increasingly dangerous, and the reader is left wondering if she choose between loyalty to her country or her love for her husband.

Cleveland spent eight years working as a CIA analyst, and she joins the growing ranks of retired spooks writing spy novels. Thankfully, she brings her knowledge of real-life espionage to add realism to this tale. This is a world wherein spies sit in front of computers and pore over financial statements and social media messages looking for threats to national security. And yet, even if the spy trade isn’t glamorous, Cleveland makes sure its never dull. Need to Know kept me guessing right to the end as the characters are involving and sympathetic. Vivian and Matt are not lazy caricatures of spies, they have the same problems as other couples, and the reader identifies with them as a consequence.

Just before Christmas, publishers traditionally rush out ghost-written, shallow memoirs by celebrities you’ve never heard of. So, this January, I needed to know that well-written and engaging novels are still hugely popular. Karen Cleveland did that for me.

The proof copy of Need to Know had a hidden message for budding spies

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