In The Poison Factory: Operation Kamera, real-life former CIA Chief of Station Lucy Kirk has created a fast-moving spy/crime thriller revolving around the fictional Dektora Raines, a migraine-med popping, white-wine drinking CIA agent on leave from the agency. “Decky” is tutoring Russian and trying to locate her significant other Alex, whose disappearance has something to do with Syria, when she suddenly receives an urgent plea from Sergei, a Russian defector whom she had once transferred to London. Hoping to set things straight, she rushes to London, where another defector has just died, the apparent victim of a claw-wielding serial killer. As Dektora tries to figure out what’s really going on, the seemingly separate incidents become increasingly intertwined, and the reader won’t rest until she wraps things up.
The Poison Factory is sure to appeal to anyone afflicted with Cold War nostalgia or those suspicious of Russia’s current global maneuvering (or both). Dektora herself notes the continuity: “The Russians would get back to their old tricks, Cold War over or not.”
Given her CIA career, Kirk effectively incorporates CIA lingo, tactics and relevant global news, such as the 2006 death of Alexander Litvineko, a real-life Russian defector who died after being poisoned with radioactive polonium in his tea. Also, one doesn’t have to stretch the imagination too far to suspect that some of the office dynamics in the novel pertain to her own experiences as a woman in a male-dominated profession. Recalling an incident of sexual harassment from early in her career, Dektora hears her old boss saying, “I’ve read your file. You’ve done some decent work. Tell me, what can you do for me in Paris?” The subsequent can’t-you-take-a-joke part was especially relatable.
Part of the fun of the book is observing the overlapping jurisdictions, and competition and/or cooperation of the local city inspectors, MI5, MI6 and the CIA. This rich assortment of characters—plus the Russians, bystanders and others—makes the book more interesting, reflects real life, and is typical for this type of plot-driven espionage thriller. That said, casual readers may need to re-read a chapter here or there to keep track of everything.
Perhaps because I am a former journalist, the tabloid reporter Alastair Sinclair-Jones fell flat for me. It was not that I minded the existence of a tabloid journalist per se; I could understand he was supposed to be a pest, a man who would sensationalize for the sake of sales and popularity, rather than a more serious journalist with a higher calling, a person attempting to inform and educate the citizenry. However, the portrayal of Sinclair-Jones, his paper and news coverage in general struck me as somewhat unrealistic.
I couldn’t help but note some editorial glitches, including the occasional typo, the inconsistent use of italics, and a few awkward switches in point of view. Yet, I found myself tolerant of these flaws, given that Kirk is an independent author. As such, she would lack the typical team of editors, fact checkers and other minions paid by the major publishing houses to pore over manuscripts with a fine-toothed comb.
Overall, I recommend The Poison Factory as a timely, fun spy thriller with a strong plot and entertaining characters, by a woman who clearly knows what it’s like to be in the field and holds unmistakable Russia expertise, and I’m looking forward to reading about Dektora Raines’ new missions.