Need to Know by Karen Cleveland

By Ekta R. Garg

March 8, 2018

Genre: Thriller

Release date: January 23, 2018

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

A CIA analyst discovers a horrible secret about her husband and must decide between her job and her marriage. As she grapples with her loyalty to her country and her loyalty to her relationship, she discovers that her devotion to both aren’t as airtight as she thought. Author Karen Cleveland, a former CIA analyst herself, gives readers a stereotypical plot and a helpless protagonist in her novel Need to Know.

Vivian Miller spends her days looking into other people’s lives. As a counterintelligence analyst for the CIA, Vivian specializes in Russia—that is, she uses the technology at her disposal to spy on people suspected of being Russian agents hiding in plain sight. Sleepers, they’re called, but her project keeps her up at nights. Despite developing an algorithm that has the potential to identify Russian sleepers, Vivian’s piece of the project is in danger of being shut down after a dismal lack of results.

When she gets into the computer of a confirmed Russian sleeper, then, Vivian feels relieved. Finally, something is going right. Until she pokes around in the sleeper’s files and finds a picture of her husband, Matt, staring right back at her. Contrary to protocol, her training, and her allegiance to the United States government, Vivian doesn’t tell anyone. Instead, she goes home and confronts Matt.

Matt doesn’t deny anything. Vivian’s dread turns to horror when she learns he’s been aligned with Russia since he was a teen, taken in as an orphan and groomed to spy on the United States. Through the years, given the nature of her job, Vivian shared limited information about her work with Matt; he’s quick to reassure her now that he’s only passed on benign facts. His marriage to her may have been by design—direct access to the CIA through one of its own—but somewhere along the way he fell in love with her and now wants only to protect her and their four kids.

Vivian finds herself testing the limits of her commitment to her work and the country. By all reasonable accounts, she should turn Matt in immediately. In fact, he urges her to do so. It’s the right choice. But she loves him, and her heart clenches when she thinks of what their four young children might have to face if their father gets sent to prison. With her marriage vows in the forefront of her mind, Vivian begins making compromises until she’s left with the worst choice possible.

Author Karen Cleveland writes with authority about the CIA. Her own time as an analyst serves her well in writing fiction. Readers will have no problem seeing Vivian’s work as real and an organic part of what keeps our country safe.

It’s a shame, then, that Cleveland allows her plot to undo Vivian’s intelligent, self-assured, enterprising spirit. Had Vivian joined the CIA mere months or a year before her discovery of Matt’s identity, her willingness to turn a blind eye to her husband’s deception would be easier to justify. For someone who has spent a decade working to out-think and out-smart political enemies, it comes as a major disappointment that she refuses to utilize her training even at the risk of losing someone close to her.

As the story progresses, Matt cajoles, pleads, and stonewalls Vivian into making choices that only benefit him. Even as he tries to convince Vivian to turn him in, readers will be able to see through his lies. He may feel strongly for Vivian, yes, but he didn’t survive decades as a Russian operative only on his charm. The story is told in first-person, so readers only get Vivian’s side of the story, but Matt’s strength and sheer grit to stay loyal to his interests come through loud and clear. Vivian melts into a puddle of indecision by the end, which may leave readers shaking their heads and wishing she had remained steadfast to her work and, ultimately, herself.

Despite the many opportunities to redeem herself and the book, Vivian doesn’t do either. In the current day and age, readers would have welcomed a strong female CIA analyst with the guts to use her training and intelligence to do her job well. I recommend readers Bypass Need to Know.