A cataract, and the surgery to remove it, stopped my reading cold for a couple of months this summer; so I didn’t get around to reading the latest novel by Thomas H. Cook, one of my favorite writers, until this week.
The Quest for Anna Klein, which was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July, is Cook’s first foray into the spy novel genre. However, the structure of the book will be familiar to fans of the author’s finest crime novels including The Fate of Katherine Carr and The “Last Talk With Lola Faye.
Once again, the main character is struggling to come to grips with something that happened in the distant past – an event that changed the course of his life. And once again, it was an event that he didn’t fully understand because of his tendency to deceive himself and because key information was withheld from him.
The novel opens shortly after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Paul Crane, a young foreign affairs expert who has just penned a tract calling for vengeance, is dispatched by a Washington think tank to interview an aged former intelligence officer who says he has thoughts that could assist American policy-making on the terrorist threat.
Crane meets Thomas Jefferson Danforth in the latter’s posh New York City club, hoping to get the interview over quickly and rush back to Washington ahead of an expected snow storm. But Danforth has other plans. He has a story to tell—“a little parable,” he calls it – and he’s determined to spin it out in his own time.
After Hitler rose to power in Germany, Danforth explains, a U.S. intelligence officer asked him for permission to use his remote Connecticut estate to conceal a mysterious young Jewish woman while she was being trained in the use of firearms and explosives in preparation for an undercover assignment in Europe.
Danforth agreed; but as he watched Anna Klein prepare for her assignment, he became entranced by her. Eventually, he broke off his engagement to a wealthy woman and volunteered to accompany Anna on her perilous assignment.
In Germany, things went bad. Anna and another operative were arrested by the Gestapo, and Danforth barely escaped with his life. Convinced that he and Anna were betrayed by a double agent, Danforth returned to Europe after the war to search for her, to discover who betrayed them, and to wreak revenge.
But the deeper he looked, the more he realized how little he understood about Anna and their assignment. Eventually he began to think that Anna herself may have been a double, or event triple agent.
Cook structures his story as a conversation between Crane and Danforth, the narrative flashing back and forth between their talk and the vivid details of the espionage assignment and Danforth’s quest.
His search for answers, and revenge, we gradually learn, has consumed him, causing him much hardship and eating decades of his life. This superbly well-written, literary novel has more twists and turns than a John le Carre thriller; and in the end, there are three surprises you’ll never see coming.
The Quest for Anna Klein is more than just another spy novel. It is at once a tormented love story and a morality tale about betrayal and vengeance. And most importantly, Danforth (and Cook) gently prod Crane (and the reader) toward an understanding of the high cost of zealotry.
You can purchase the book here.