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The Helsinki Affair


The Helsinki Affair

In her latest novel, the thrilling spy story THE HELSINKI AFFAIR, Anna Pitoniak stretches our imagination. We travel not only in time, from the present back to the Cold War, but also geographically --- from Washington, DC, to Algiers, Rome, Moscow, New York and, of course, Helsinki. Over the course of this book, we follow Amanda Cole and her father Charlie, both of whom work for the CIA, as we watch and learn about the fascinating business of spycraft.

The action begins on the first page. While Amanda is deputy chief of the Rome CIA station, a Russian defector talks his way into the American embassy, claiming that an American senator is about to be killed. One of Amanda's real assets is her ability to read people --- to know when they are telling the truth or lying. She is able to detect falsehoods from minute tics or unconscious movements that the fabricator doesn't even realize are happening. So she believes Semonov when he explains how the senator will die and even tells them when and where it will happen.

"Gear up for a brilliantly plotted, complex spy thriller that not only will entertain, but will cause sincere reflection about what it means to be a person of integrity and how we can atone for our mistakes."

Unfortunately for the senator, Amanda's superior doesn't believe the Russian's story and insists they do nothing. The senator dies. When the station chief is away, Amanda realizes that the assassination did indeed occur and makes the decision to report it to the CIA director. That does not go well for her superior, who is encouraged to retire, and Amanda gets his job. Her rise to station chief at the age of 40 contrasts with her father's seeming lack of ambition at the agency for the past several decades. He's been a paper pusher ever since he left Helsinki to return to the US and work in DC, ostensibly to be closer to his family.

But there is more to Charlie's story than that. We know, for example, that Amanda's father and mother divorced when she was young. And although Amanda and Charlie are fairly close, it wasn't always that way. Because the narrative is told from the points of view of the various characters, including Amanda's mother Helen, we understand many of the motivations and emotions involved.

When Charlie ends up with a secret folder that belonged to the assassinated senator and has his name in it, he turns it over to Amanda with an unreasonable request. In the folder is a complex Russian plot to control American corporations. It's nothing shocking to those who follow the news and learn about how Russia manipulates social media in favor of US political candidates they support, but Pitoniak's use of that manipulation to create the plot in the story is brilliant. In fact, one of my favorite sentences in the book speaks to the stock market and social media: "But the market was just people, and they failed to understand how easily people could be manipulated." Unfortunately, we've seen proof of that fact in real life.

Pitoniak doles out the information about Amanda and Charlie. As the novel progresses, the alternative narrative quickens between the past and the present as we see Charlie's Helsinki affair's climax while watching Amanda's attempts to resolve her case as she tries to balance work and family.

There's a lot to admire about Pitoniak's writing, and from the beginning we are hooked on the action and the characters. I liked that there wasn't any romance in the story; while I appreciate a good romance as much as the next person, this is a thriller. The main character is a strong, intelligent female who is powerful on her own. Yet Pitoniak doesn't make her a superhero. In fact, Amanda admits that she has a major shortcoming: putting together large amounts of information. Kath, another spy who becomes her friend as well as a colleague, excels at this. Amanda's strength is reading people and situations, and that's been important in her career. Charlie, on the other hand, is painted in less glowing terms, and the mistakes that he has made are glaringly evident.

While filled with plenty of action and adventure, this book also makes us consider what is important in life. Amanda must decide between family and doing the right thing. Charlie ends up proving to be a stronger person than we might have suspected. And while the title is THE HELSINKI AFFAIR, it's Amanda whom we really come to esteem and respect. It's her sense of right and wrong, her determination to protect others and maintain her moral compass, that deserve our admiration. Gear up for a brilliantly plotted, complex spy thriller that not only will entertain, but will cause sincere reflection about what it means to be a person of integrity and how we can atone for our mistakes.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on November 17, 2023

The Helsinki Affair
by Anna Pitoniak

  • Publication Date: November 14, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1668014742
  • ISBN-13: 9781668014745