“I felt my body heat increase as he recounted the tale of the Sempworth, aka Karchenko, case. Lots of loose threads, but all the same color.”

Those memorable words come from Decktora Raines, the hero of The Poison Factory, as she seeks to weave enough of those threads together to solve the mystery of why Russian defectors keep turning up murdered in London so she can save a friend and bring the perpetrators to justice. 

It’s only January, but I feel safe in predicting that this atmospheric, authoritative spy tale by retired CIA officer-turned-novelist Lucy Kirk will emerge as one of the best debut thrillers BookTrib will review in 2022.

For starters, “Decktora” is a way-cool name for a CIA agent, don’t you think? As the story opens, she’s on leave from the CIA, wondering if Alex, a former fellow agent and the love of her life, is dead after disappearing down the rabbit holes of classified operations. 

While contemplating the what’s-next in her life, she gets a mysterious, urgent letter from Sergei, a Russian defector she once handled as he moved to the good-guy side. She and Sergei became friends in that process, and she helped him settle into London with a new life and family. Decktora decides she owes it to Sergei to follow up, particularly because Sergei grossly violated protocol simply by contacting her. It shows the depth of his fear. 

POISONED VENGEANCE

Once she gets to London, she becomes a suspect herself as bodies pile up and the London metro police, who aren’t in the intelligence loop, think they have a serial killer on the loose. Meanwhile, Sergei fears that Russian spies have identified him, particularly a former nemesis named Karchenko, who’s now stationed in London along with an associate, Olga, a bloodthirsty and sociopathic expert in poisons. 

The killing methods, not to mention the author’s apparent knowledge of the spycraft arts of poisoning, will chill you. Authorities find claw marks and an unidentified white powder on the victims. At first, they dismiss the Russians as the perpetrators, because it’s well-known that the typical Russian government method of poisoning in recent years involves radiation, not old-school poisons.

Decktora realizes she must bring British and U.S. intelligence agencies into the loop. They’re not happy about her freelancing; nor with her off-the-books efforts to get answers about Alex. Still, they must work together to figure out how to catch the Russian agents as it becomes clearer that it’s a mission of revenge and vengeance against those who betrayed the homeland. 

As Sergei’s fellow defectors get picked off, Decktora fights through migraine headaches, surveillance and operations that bust badly. It all rings true. Kirk blends real-world elements with the atmosphere, crisp dialogue and interesting characters you expect in a fine spy novel, which culminates in a straightforward climax.

AN AUTHOR WITH DEEP EXPERTISE

Kirk’s biography states she was a CIA operations officer and a chief of station who spent more than 30 years working for the CIA in the U.S. and abroad with a focus on the USSR and post-Soviet Russia. She currently teaches courses on espionage and the Cold War in New York City.

In the contemporary CIA world that Kirk shows us — and she’s probably not allowed to say what’s precisely true and what isn’t — Soviet experts like Raines are passe, almost dismissed as throwback dinosaurs in a world with growing threats from the Far East. 

Perhaps Kirk is also warning us to ignore today’s Russian leaders at our peril, reminding us that we still need people like Decktora Raines.

Buy this book!

About Lucy Kirk:

Lucy Kirk worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for over thirty years. She entered the Agency’s Career Trainee Program as one of nine women among some 90 men, then went on to a career as a case officer in the Directorate of Operations (DO). She served in field assignments in the U.S. and abroad, targeting and debriefing individuals with access to information of intelligence interest to the U.S. government. Lucy eventually became a Chief of Station, one of a handful of female DO officers who reached that level at that time.

Over the years, she worked increasingly on the Soviet Union, and later Russia, because she viewed that geography as the core of intelligence concern over her decades in the Agency. In addition to the DO, she spent three years in the Director of Central Intelligence’s (DCI) Office of Congressional Affairs, carrying out congressional liaison, meeting with Congressmen and senior staffers on Capitol Hill regarding key intelligence topics.  Lucy holds a bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College and a graduate degree in Latin America Studies from American University’s School of International Service in Washington, D.C.