Review: Need to Know by Karen Cleveland

9780593079607Karen Cleveland’s Need to Know briskly assembles the lives of Vivian and Matt Miller — their happy marriage, their house in the suburbs, their four beautiful children — before eviscerating its veracity with the revelation that Matt is a Russian sleeper agent.

Cleveland’s debut physiological thriller is a whirlwind of  red herrings and reversals, smoothly melded together, whose revelations and consequences intensify to an excruciating level. At a time when bookshop shelves are being proliferated by various iterations of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, Need to Know takes what made those domestic noir thrillers tick and meshes those elements with a dash of espionage. It’s a thriller that will appeal as much to fans of Homeland and 24 as Paula Hawkins’ and Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster novels.

Vivian Miller is a CIA analyst tasked with tracking Russian sleeper agents, but unlike most protagonists that proliferate the genre, she also has a home life; and it’s not falling apart. That is, until Vivian hacks her way into the laptop of a Russian handler the agency has been monitoring, and discovers five photographs that identify the handler’s underlings; one of whom is Viv’s husband. Is the information reliable? Is she being toyed with? Is Matt friend or foe; at all the man she thought she had married? Should she turn him in, or obliterate the data, maintain the status quo? Every decision Vivian makes seems to be the wrong one, and very soon, she’s a puppet on strings, doing somebody’s bidding. The ultimate question: who is the actual puppeteer?

Need to Know rockets along at a great clip, flashing backwards and forwards in time, underling some of Matt’s questionable behaviour at one moment, then reminding the reader how stellar a husband and father he is a few pages later. Cleveland manipulates the reader with aplomb, highlighting the impossibility of knowing those closest to us. Its pace means some characters are a tad underdeveloped — there to propel the story to its next juncture than exist with any depth — and a couple of moments when the narrative shifts from first person to third person feel contrived, particularly the twist at the very end.

Need to Know is a propulsive page-turner, fast, conscientious, and utterly true to its carefully wrought formula. A perfect beach read.

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