Review: Need to Know by Karen Cleveland

Need to Know by Karen Cleveland follows CIA Analyst Vivian Miller, who uncovers a dangerous secret in pursuit of a Russian sleeper cell on American soil that will threaten her job, her family—and her life (available January 23, 2018).

Late at night, surrounded by the soft sounds of their four sleeping children, a husband asks his wife what she’s going to do. The woman is gripping a flash drive with great intensity and wishing to herself that “the past two days” could “be erased.”

What happened two days earlier to CIA counterintelligence analyst Vivian Miller? Her job is “to uncover the leaders of Russian sleeper cells in the United States.” It’s a frustrating task, both for her and her colleagues.

Omar’s been doing this longer than I have. A decade, at least. He’s looking for the actual sleepers in the U.S., and I’m trying to uncover those running the cell. Neither of us has had any success. How he’s still so enthusiastic never fails to amaze me.

The reason it’s so difficult to identify Russian sleepers is that “the SVR—Russia’s powerful external intelligence service—fears moles within its own organization,” and they don’t even keep the names of sleepers on Russian computers. A “multilayer encryption protocol” and airtight programs have kept CIA analysts at bay for years.

Vivian is nothing if not persistent. She develops a profiling methodology to uncover suspected handlers, hoping they will lead to the names of the sleepers. Every day she scans files, and her worries about the sinister effects of the program on America keep her up at night, especially since they “know the head of the program reports to Putin himself.”

Fortuitously, the CIA obtained the computer of Yury Yakov, a man they suspect may be a handler. Going through Yakov’s files, Vivian spots a Cyrillic word she knows: друг, which roughly translated means friends. Friends. Click. Double-click. Her “heart rate begins to accelerate” when she sees a “list of five JPEG images.” Five is very significant because “there are five sleepers assigned to each handler.”

Stop reading now if spoilers aren’t your thing.

Vivian clicks on “a headshot of a nondescript middle-aged man in round eyeglasses.” It’s just a picture, but even the possibility that she’s looking at an invisible, “well assimilated” member of American society has her excited: “My gut tells me this is something big.” The next picture is a woman. Why are these files on Yury’s computer? “They must be important. Targets, maybe?”

I double-click the third image and a face appears on my screen. A headshot, close-up.  So familiar, so expected—and yet not, because it’s here, where it doesn’t belong. I blink at it, once, twice, my mind struggling to bridge what I’m seeing with what I’m seeing, what it means. Then I swear that time stops. Icy fingers close around my heart and squeeze, and all I can hear is the whoosh of blood in my ears.

I’m staring into the face of my husband.

When Vivian Miller joined the CIA, she vowed she would “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Does that include her husband, Matt? She goes home and asks him, “How long have you been working for the Russians?” How will he respond? “Will there be honest confusion? Indignation? Shame?”

There’s nothing. Absolutely no emotion crosses his face. It doesn’t change. And that sends a bolt of fear through me.

He looks at me evenly. Waits a beat too long to answer, but just barely. “Twenty-two years.”

It was no accident that Matthew Miller bumped into Vivian years earlier, the day she moved to Washington. Heartsick, she unravels a lifetime of choices and judgments, discovering that nothing about her married or professional life is coincidental.  Unsurprisingly, the Russians attempt to blackmail her, hence the flash-drive in the opening scene.

The plot of Need to Know lends itself to a Jeopardy answer: The only crime specifically defined in the Constitution. Question: What is treason? The penalty for treason is chilling. If you are found guilty, you “shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000.” Vivian’s intelligence, patriotism, and love of her family are pitted against shadowy forces that threaten everything she holds dear. Need to Know is a tour de force. Vivian’s humanity versus the treacherous world of realpolitik.


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Janet Webb aka @JanetETennessee has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.

Read all of Janet Webb's articles for Criminal Element!


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    In a speech, which she began in Irish, she called for forbearance and conciliation and referred to “things we wish had been done differently or not at all”.

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