The Spy Who Never Was is an espionage thriller with an appealing and unusual spy protagonist. Nora Baron is not an official spy, but she is married to one. Her husband Jeff is a former field agent who is now a supervisor with a desk job. She is a drama teacher whose reached the big five-oh, and an occasional consulting gig with the CIA though she is untrained in the kind of skills one would expect her to have, like what to do when someone is going to kill you.
Did you know acting equips you with many of the skills that make a great spy? Figuring out a character’s motive to play their part prepares you to figure out what some bad guy may be up to. Also, lists are good.
Nora is called to play the part of The Spy Who Never Was, a cover identity that was retired, but now some hacker has discovered that identity was false and is extorting the CIA for millions as exposure would threaten operatives around the world. Nora will go to Paris and pretend to be that spy in hopes of drawing out the hacker. Her trip to Paris is right out of the guidebooks, meals at the best restaurants and so on, all in hopes of drawing out the hacker. Well, more than a hacker is drawn from the woodwork and suddenly Nora realizes all is not as it appears and perhaps she has been drawn into a deeper, more dangerous game than they promised.
I think Nora Baron is appealing. I love that her name is a palindrome and her husband calls her Pal. I appreciate that the story is fair. Nora does not hide information from the reader, we know what she knows when she knows it. I think the actual plot is intriguing and complex enough to hold my interest, though it seems to me that Cole and Amanda’s scheme to capture the “hacker” could have been frustrated by a simple phone call.
In the end, though, I thought this book failed readers. It is very flat and reminds me of an old Silhouette Intrigue except, of course, they would never have a fifty-year-old main character. The sense of place felt mediated by a guidebook rather than experience. I’m not suggesting the author never went to those places, though it’s possible, but that the author’s experience of those places was driven by tours and guidebooks, by research rather than experience.
I also struggled to suspend disbelief that the CIA would be sending an actress/drama teacher rather than a field agent. There’s a late night encounter in her Paris hotel that is just too, too improbable for words. I also think that love may conquer a lot, but it doesn’t conquer the kind of sociopathy that is necessary to be a contract killer and when a contract killer who has murdered across the globe gets caught, would they ever be released, no matter how much they have been transformed by love? I just don’t see the French security service, no matter how much France is for lovers, deciding that love erases a pile of bodies across the world.
The Spy Who Never Was is entertaining. I like Nora, but there is no real suspense. She is far too nice to fail. I never felt she was in real jeopardy. There’s no such genre as cozy espionage, but that’s how this book feels, like a cozy spy thriller.
I received a copy of The Spy Who Never Was from the publisher through NetGalley.