Spies Like Us: On David McCloskey’s “Moscow X”

By Katherine VoylesMarch 23, 2024

Spies Like Us: On David McCloskey’s “Moscow X”

Moscow X by David McCloskey

LATE IN David McCloskey’s Moscow X (2023), the protagonist, Sia Fox, tells her partner on an operation, who is also her lover for the purposes of that operation, why the work suits her: “You’re in the shadows. […] I’m out there in the darkness with the biggest secret in the world playing the only game that matters. And I’m winning. I felt like that when I ran ops.”

The language of light and dark, secrecy and openness, in the service of a Great Game, is of course a staple of spy fiction, yet it remains noteworthy not only for its persistence but also for what it means in today’s reading and publishing contexts.

Sia’s reflection is significant for what it indicates about her as a fictional character, how it echoes other spy novels, how it depicts gender in the genre, and how it ventriloquizes public discourses about espionage.

McCloskey is himself a former CIA officer. His authorial voice is a throwback to the days when former officers used their specialized knowledge to deliver stories in the open world that constantly raised the stakes for their characters. And while that frame may be somewhat helpful, it’s probably a bit too limited for understanding the novel and its contexts.

Moscow X was published within a few months of other high-profile books about spying. Some of these titles include Michael G. Vickers’s memoir, By All Means Available: Memoirs of a Life in Intelligence, Special Operations, and Strategy, Calder Walton’s Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West, and Adam Sissman’s The Secret Life of John le Carré. Shortly after Moscow X was released, Penguin Books also announced that one of le Carré’s sons would publish a new George Smiley novel in 2024.

A former spy’s memoir, a history of intelligence, the new biography of a famous spy turned novelist, and the forthcoming continuation of that novelist’s work form an important backdrop to McCloskey’s own novel. How spies understand reality, how they themselves tell it apart from whatever is its opposite, how they’ve done so over the course of a career, and how those concerns play out in a novel are all live issues today.

There is, of course, a backdrop to that backdrop as well. The earlier publication context includes a slew of memoirs by former, very high-profile intelligence officials, such as James Clapper, Michael Hayden, and James Comey; histories of election interference between Russia and the United States from Tim Weiner and David Shimer; Chris Whipple’s account of CIA directors; and of course myriad novels.

This only scratches the surface of other relatively recent books by and about intelligence officers. What’s more? None of this accounts for podcasts, small screen serials, or documentaries. Nor does it account for the podcasts about those small screen serials—the one that accompanied FX’s The Americans (2013–18), for example—or the potential for podcasts to become small screen serials. I am all anticipation for a visual adaptation of Patrick Radden Keefe’s Wind of Change, about whether the CIA wrote the Scorpions’ power ballad of the same name.

My recitation here is breathless both because of the sheer range and volume of output and also because that range and volume are crucially important to conceiving of spying as a rightful genre. There is something mutually constitutive about spy fiction and the act of espionage, but their entwinement goes far deeper than the fact that so many novelists were themselves operatives. In his debrief on spy fiction, Nicholas Dames notes that “the spy is always also a fiction. It isn’t simply that the spy relies on ‘covers,’ or fictions, for their work. It is that no profession has greater traffic with the business of fiction writing itself.” For my own part, I extend Dames’s observations by treating spying itself as a genre.

Espionage happens in real life, in novels, and in other forms of cultural production. While these realities may seem distinct, they wind around each other in ways that make it hard to distinguish one from the other. And it’s not just the fact of espionage or its presence in absorbing narratives that really matters here. I am after the ways that the fact of spying and the fact of writing about spying are imbricated.

This intimacy has its limits. Charles McCarry, former CIA officer and author of the Paul Christopher series, reflected in the The Washington Post: “I was surprised to read in the newspapers that I was writing spy novels.” “But I had no choice but to go on making up stories about men and women who happened to live in the worlds of espionage and politics,” he goes on, “which happen to be worlds that I know something about, having written speeches for a presidential campaign and spent 10 years as a CIA agent during the Cold War.” In Dames’s view, the worlds of intelligence and fiction about intelligence come into very close contact indeed, whereas McCarry queries whether fiction about spies is necessarily spy fiction.

McCloskey’s page-turner braids his knowledge of the secret world with the traditions of espionage fiction and is indebted to the breadth of storytelling available today. Moscow X tells the stories of Sia and Max, two people roped into running the agent PERSEPHONE, the codename for Anna. Anna is the wife of Vadim, a moneyman for Vladimir Putin, and is an intelligence officer in her own right. From the outside, Sia appears to be a stylish, perhaps unscrupulous, lawyer in London. But she’s also an adrenaline junkie who uses that quirk to forge and leverage relationships as an intelligence officer. Max is a Mexican national whose family breeds horses and has been agents for generations, a dynamic that traps Max in an unconventional inheritance.

Together, Max and Sia are supposed to convince Anna to help them in an operation designed to make it look like certain Russian officials are stealing money. That perception, in turn, is designed to cause political instability among Russian elites. Some of what preoccupies McCloskey is certainly the bureaucratic ins and outs of government officials and agents running a complex operation. How characters feel about deceiving someone, misleading each other, and even lying to themselves in service of an operation is the real stuff of the novel. In spy fiction, characters work together to convince other characters that something happened that did not in fact happen—because none of this really happened, even if it seems plausible. In spy fiction, this takes on yet another layer as the author’s attempt to suspend belief is itself about layers upon layers of deception.

Even this, however, doesn’t fully describe the complexity of each character in Moscow X—Max’s split against himself, Sia’s mixed feelings about sleeping with Max as part of the job, and Anna’s unabashed hatred of her husband and unreserved love for the lover she almost keeps hidden from her own country’s security services. Characters keep secrets from one another, themselves, the service they work for, and the hostile services that track them. Brutal may not be a strong enough word for Moscow X.

As Moscow X goes inside the secret world, the novel focuses on the people who move Putin’s money and the Western intelligence agents who track that movement. It depicts how officers rise through the ranks, foregrounds issues of gender, paints its characters as both people and actors on the global stage, and steadfastly avoids advocating for characters’ operation on a pro-democracy basis.

Taken singly, or even in combination, some of these issues may not seem promising—there’s the risk that it all reads a bit stodgy. How McCloskey interrelates these issues to seduce readers is all his own. He deftly mixes vodka-drinking Russians with a warehouse full of hackers who eat Twizzlers and Red Vines, and he effortlessly moves between the characters’ individual concerns and the geopolitical stakes for which they are playing. This is a staple of spy fiction, but he isn’t beholden to tradition. The novel is up-to-date, making it believable, which McCloskey uses to full effect. Anna and Vadim both drink vodka—this isn’t only for the guys. And because it’s going to be such an important part of their operation, Max and Sia get lessons in how to drink heavily without getting drunk before first visiting Saint Petersburg. Spies for the United States take lessons in how to get Russian spies to like them.

It’s the very tension between the specificity of espionage and its seeming ordinariness that makes spying its own genre. Dames notes, “Spy novels narrow the world to the dimensions of agencies and their rivals or targets. They are realist in texture, never experimental, resolutely focused. Characters become their functions: agent, handler, mole, director, or operational head.” When it’s all about the inner workings of government, the ordinariness of spying can get lost in the mundane details of the work itself.

And it turns out that those very mundane details are what make the ordinariness of spying like the ordinariness of so many other parts of life. “[T]he secret world is too much like the ordinary world to be altogether entertaining,” McCarry writes.

The elements of tradecraft that thrill us in books—cover stories, clandestine meetings, dead drops, telephone codes and so on—are techniques familiar to anyone who has ever covered a big story for a newspaper, negotiated a big contract against serious competition or conducted a clandestine love affair. Men and women who betray their spouses, a homely enough situation, often tell themselves that they are acting in a higher cause: true love. All traitors are alike.

Journalist Virginia Heffernan put the same idea a different way last year: “Realism doesn’t matter much in spy thrillers but for extra relatable suspense the spies should definitely spend more time looking for chargers,” she posted on X.

Spying is what spies do when paid to do so by their government, but it’s also what other people do in other contexts. To think of the spy novel as characterized by specialized knowledge from former officials misses how writing about spying dramatizes a back-and-forth between reality and something else—between transparency and opacity. How the open world is like the secret one and how to tell one from the other are the concerns of spying as a genre.

LARB Contributor

Katherine Voyles is a PhD in English who uses that background to write in public about the cultures of national security and national security in culture. She works for the Department of the Army, but the views here are her own and do not represent the official position of the US Army or US Department of Defense.


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