Americans, Russians Play Allies, Enemies in New Spy Novel

Novelist David McCloskey crafts a complex game of espionage and revenge in his second spy novel, ‘Moscow X.’
Americans, Russians Play Allies, Enemies in New Spy Novel
"Moscow X: A Novel" by David McCloskey closely follows intrigue and espionage between the United States and Russia.
Dustin Bass

Former CIA analyst David McCloskey has written a well-crafted spy novel. “Moscow X,” Mr. McCloskey’s follow-up to his debut novel “Damascus Station,” is a complex story with many moving parts, a variety of main characters, and geographic locations from Mexico to Washington to St. Petersburg. To Mr. McCloskey’s great credit, he harnesses the complexity of the story to streamline the narrative, never making it difficult to connect the dots.

The book combines separate plots—an American and Russian storyline—with characters collaborating while simultaneously pursuing separate ends. Sia, a lawyer for a firm that represents Russian oligarchs, and Max, a Mexican horse breeder, are CIA operatives brought together to recruit Vadim, a Russian banker, in an effort to wreak havoc on Putin’s system. Vadim’s wife, Anna, who happens to be Russian intelligence, wants to throw a wrench in the system, but for very different reasons. Her father, and the bank’s owner, is being pushed out by a competing and vicious oligarch. The story ultimately pursues the old adage: an enemy of my enemy is my friend. The question is whether these “friends” can trust each other.

For as anti-Russian as the American intelligence industry (real and fictive) tends to be and as pro-Russia as the oligarch system (real and fictive) tends to be, the reader may walk away feeling perhaps not ambivalent toward Russia but neither anti nor pro. Mr. McCloskey presents a ruthless, corrupt Russian system that is replete with patriotic servants—patriotic in both a positive and negative sense. He presents it as a system like the winters of Siberia, regardless of its brutality, it just is, and the characters must make their way through it.

Though set in the modern day, “Moscow X” demonstrates that America and Russia still interact with Cold War caution. The book asks “How can we combat Russia without starting a war? How can we undermine her regime without toppling it?” In a fictional way, Mr. McCloskey introduces Americans and American assets, like a Mexican family of horse breeders or two Finnish brothers, who are willing to risk life and limb (and limbs are severed) to approach the firestorm that is Russia and answer those questions.

Character Driven?

“Moscow X” is well written with a complex plot, but I wouldn’t say the story is character driven. The characters are by no means stale, and even minor characters’ motivations are hidden. But for this reader, I did not find myself becoming attached to them, for possibly a couple of reasons. It may have been because the protagonists (three women: two Americans, one Russian) were cut from the same cloth: hard-nosed and calculating. Although the protagonists care about the well-being of each other and their secondary characters/assets, it is clear that their missions take the highest priority (a fact of life in true espionage). In literary terms, the plot takes priority over the characters.
The two primary male characters (an American protagonist and a Russian antagonist) are, however, polar opposites: one is caring, courageous, and straightforward, the other vicious, cowardly, and manipulative. Unfortunately, the male protagonist was practically one dimensional. A third male character, Anna’s lover, appears late, seemingly by happenstance. Such an appearance made his fate overtly obvious. Perhaps had the gender roles been reversed, it would have been more tragic—if not more tragic, at least less obvious. But one can hardly fault Mr. McCloskey for creating necessary pawns to move the story along, much like he can hardly fault the reader for predicting a minor character’s outcome.

Character Positives

The Russian villains live up to the term, though their villainy is not focused on war, terrorism, or corruption. It’s about power within the Russian oligarch system and conducting power plays against each other.  It’s within this power struggle that the story spins.

As with most spy novels, the characters’ outcomes are written in the sky. Mr. McCloskey, however, does well to keep the reader on edge with surprising twists and betrayals. He also brutalizes his main characters in such a way that makes them appear dispensable.

Another aspect of Mr. McCloskey’s work I appreciated was that he does not allow his characters to walk off into the sunset. The ending is sobering. Even a successful mission has collateral damage―physical, emotional, and career-wise.

“Moscow X” combines a fictional and honest ending fictional yet realistic—an ending that leaves the reader satisfied, but not overjoyed. I think that is the glimmer of gold in a work that is more silver and bronze.

Fun for Real Reasons

Spy thrillers are typically fun reads, but they are often spun from yarn made from explosions, shootouts, and highly improbable action. Of course, a spy novel without those elements makes for a rather anticlimactic read, which practically removes the thrill from the “spy thriller.” Mr. McCloskey delivers the mayhem on a moderate scale. What the author truly excels in is his ability to demonstrate the reality of espionage with the details of spycraft: The orchestration of an operation, the tools or lack thereof needed to conduct such an operation, how missions rarely if ever go according to plan, and how despite training, an operative can still be caught unawares. At times, training hardly proves helpful.

For readers and fans of spy novels, Mr. McCloskey has crafted a gritty and believable work of espionage fiction. His great attention to detail brings his world alive, and it is a world that draws you in and keeps you flipping through the pages. A story full of brutal and deceitful characters, gripping geographic environments, and hard to forget scenes, “Moscow X” clearly marks the spot.

"Moscow X: A Novel" by David McCloskey.
"Moscow X: A Novel" by David McCloskey.
“Moscow X: A Novel”  by David McCloskey W. W. Norton & Company, Oct. 3, 2023 Hardcover: 464 pages

Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.
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