Review: Need to Know

Like the domestic drama it partly is, Karen Cleveland's accomplished first novel Need to Know opens with scenes of hectic suburban family life: kids' artwork on the fridge, runny noses and bickering over breakfast cereal. Vivian is the working mom of four children under eight, trying to balance maternal guilt with professional ambition. Fortunately, her love-at-first-sight husband of 10 years is a software engineer with flexible hours and a home office. Matt gets the kids off to school and daycare, rounds up groceries, prepares meals and does the before-bed reading.

But there are a few kinks in this seemingly satisfying life: one of their infant twins has an expensive congenital heart problem, the overpriced house they bought in Bethesda, Md., has them financially strapped--and Vivian is a veteran CIA counterintelligence analyst about to bust open a Russian sleeper cell with her own innovative algorithm. By the end of chapter one, runny noses are the least of Vivian's concerns. Her hack into a Russian handler's laptop reveals that one of his longtime agents is unquestionably her husband, Matt.

With eight years of experience in the CIA, Cleveland knows the ins and outs of its clandestine mysteries--the security clearance protocols, the need-to-know global computer access vault and the informal male dress code of "loafers and pressed khakis, a button-down that's buttoned a touch too close to the top." She also has done her thriller-writing homework, with end-of-chapter surprise reveals, flashback memories of now-suspect marital moments and conversations, potential moles in the office, burner phones and a Glock in a shoebox. More Robert Ludlum than John Le Carré, Need to Know is cinematic rather than cerebral (a film starring Charlize Theron is said to be under development). It plays on the popularity of shows like The Americans and Homeland, and on the voracious public appetite for conspiracy theories.

Despite its nonstop plot and what-can-go-wrong-next intrigue, Need to Know is at heart a story of a family coming apart under the shadow of subterfuge and fear. Vivian's struggle is as much with untangling her relationship with Matt as it is with uncovering a spy ring. Is her whole marriage built on lies? Are her kids merely pawns in a long game of Russian access to U.S. intelligence? Does her boss know of her discovery and impulsive cover-up?

As Cleveland accelerates the action from covert digital snooping to overt violence, Vivian becomes a mama bear protecting her cubs. When flash drives become semi-automatics, her loyalties to husband and country take a back seat. Cleveland's debut, however, is no backseat ride. Need to Know is for those who clamber into the front car of a roller coaster waving their arms and lusting for the next gut-sucking, high-speed drop. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Shelf Talker: Karen Cleveland's debut is a nonstop thriller tapping into a hot mix of contemporary digital counterintelligence, old-school spying and ageless family drama.

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