Skip to Main Content

The Helsinki Affair

See More Retailers

About The Book

One of The Washington Post’s Best Thrillers of 2023

It’s the case of Amanda’s lifetime but solving it will require her to betray another spy—who just so happens to be her father in this “delicious spy novel” (People).

Spying is the family business. Amanda Cole is a brilliant young CIA officer following in the footsteps of her father, who was a spy during the Cold War. It takes grit to succeed in this male-dominated world—but one hot summer day, when a Russian defector walks into her post, Amanda is given the ultimate chance to prove herself.

The defector warns of the imminent assassination of a US senator. Though Amanda takes the warning seriously, her superiors don’t. Twenty-four hours later, the senator is dead. And the assassination is just beginning.

Corporate blackmail, covert manipulation, corrupt oligarchs: the Kremlin has found a dangerous new way to wage war. Teaming up with Kath Frost, a fearless older woman and legendary spy, Amanda races from Rome to London, from St. Petersburg to Helsinki, unraveling the international conspiracy. But as she gets closer to the truth, a central question haunts her: Why was her father’s name written down in the senator’s notes? What does Charlie Cole really know about the Kremlin plot?

The Helsinki Affair is an “propulsive, captivating spy novel,” (Good Morning America)—but this time with a refreshing female-centric twist. Perfect for fans of John le Carré and Daniel Silva, this book introduces Pitoniak as a singular new talent in the world of spy fiction.


It wasn’t exactly the sensible thing to do, standing outside in the hot noon sun in July in Rome. Semonov paced back and forth, mopping his brow, his handkerchief long since soaked with sweat. No, this wasn’t sensible. He ought to have done as the Romans did, escaping the summer heat by stopping at Giolitti for a cone of gelato, or napping in a shuttered bedroom, or fleeing the city altogether for the breezy hills of Umbria. But Konstantin Nikolaievich Semonov was not standing here, pleading to be admitted to the American embassy, insisting that he had urgent information to share, because he was an entirely sensible person.

In his air-conditioned booth, the soldier hung up the phone. “You need to make an appointment. No one can see you today,” he said.

“Sir!” Semonov exclaimed, leaning toward the pinprick holes in the glass. “You are a Marine. I am speaking to you as a fellow military man. I am an officer in my nation’s army. My nation which is Russia.” A needless emphasis, as ten minutes earlier he had slid his passport under the bulletproof glass barrier to identify himself. “You must understand. I have information that matters today. Not tomorrow, not next week.”

In fairness to the soldier, Semonov was a hard man to take seriously. His shirt buttons strained to contain his plump stomach. His pockets jingled with loose change. Behind his round glasses, his eyes were wide and guileless. But when the Marine hesitated for a moment, Semonov’s instinct, which was well-honed, told him to seize his opening.

“I am from Moscow.” Semonov lowered his voice. “I am here in Rome on holiday with my wife. It would not be possible for me to communicate this information while in Moscow. The nature of my work means that I am closely watched. Do you understand? The nature of my work has also exposed me to certain information that I believe your officials will value.”

“Even if that’s true,” the Marine said, “you still need to make an appointment.”

The Marine was no more than twenty-four or twenty-five years old. Crew cut, clean shave, trim as a sharpened pencil, a good soldier, a rule follower. To grant exceptions to the rules—to take pity, for instance, on a sweaty stranger with a thick accent—required the seasoning of age, which he didn’t have. And so Semonov realized, with some reluctance, that he would have to resort to blunter tactics.

Semonov stood up straight. A change passed over his features, like a shadow passing over the sun. Staring at the Marine, he said: “My information concerns Robert Vogel.”

The tiniest flinch in the young man’s brow as he registered the name.

“Senator Vogel’s flight is due to land in Cairo in one hour,” he continued calmly. “His life is in danger.”

As postings went, Rome was one of the sleepiest. It had its perks, of course. The glamorous garden parties at the Villa Taverna, where the American ambassador plied his guests with crystal flutes of prosecco. The wine-soaked weekends in the hill towns of Tuscany. The simple ability to walk safely home from the embassy without an armed escort. But Amanda Cole would have gladly given up any of those perks for the chance to do her job.

Her real job. The job she had trained for. Back in Washington, when she received news of this posting, her boss in the Directorate of Operations only shook his head, both sympathetic to and bemused by her obvious disappointment. “Enjoy it,” he’d said. “Try to make some memories, Cole. You’ll be glad to have them when you get to the next Third World bunker.”

Italian-style lunch breaks were another perk of the posting. On any given day, between the hours of noon and 3 p.m., most of her colleagues were nowhere to be found. They went home to eat and take a midday siesta, or they enjoyed a leisurely meal at one of the city’s finer restaurants, entertaining a source on the government’s dime. They had learned to take the work for what it was. If they were bored, at least they were bored in comfort.

On that hot July afternoon, Amanda Cole was halfway through her two-year posting as deputy station chief for the Central Intelligence Agency. She was forty years old—though everyone said she looked much younger—which meant that she’d been in this line of work for almost seventeen years. It was the only career she’d ever had, if you didn’t count her stints as bartender and dishwasher and au pair. After graduating high school, she had no interest in college. Beyond that surety, her sense of her future was painfully unclear, so she decided to travel the world, paying her way with a series of short-lived jobs. It wasn’t until she eventually came home and started at the agency that she learned to channel her restless curiosity to more productive ends. To succeed in the Clandestine Service required an appetite for the world’s chaos. Travel had whetted that appetite.

Her success, over time, had made her more disciplined. Amanda knew how to play the game. From the moment her flight landed at Fiumicino, not a single word of complaint had passed her lips. She nodded, smiled, acted the team player. And yet she wasn’t exactly one of the gang. The ambassador’s dinner parties, for instance. They tended to run late, but Amanda always left early. After she had slipped away, when her colleagues were deep into the Montepulciano, they sometimes speculated. Was she running something off-the-books? Was she trying to set an example? In any case, they agreed, among themselves, that there was something obnoxious about her workaholism.

Regardless of her reasoning, the fact was that Amanda was the only person there, in Rome station, to answer the phone on that summer afternoon, and to tell the young Marine not to admit this strange Russian man to the building. This was a problem for their embassies around the world. All kinds of people liked to bang on the gates and demand an audience. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they were utter kooks.

After hanging up, Amanda stared at her computer screen, trying to regain her concentration. She was in the midst of approving a spreadsheet of expense reports, which (no one ever warned you of this) comprised a significant portion of her work as deputy station chief.

The phone rang again. She picked it up and said, irritably: “You know, Sergeant, if you want to talk to me so badly, you can just ask me on a date.”

“He says he knows something about Senator Vogel,” the Marine said. “He has all the details about his trip to Egypt.”

“Bob Vogel?” Amanda sat up slightly. “What else did he say?”

“He said…” The soldier hesitated. Amanda could imagine the young man’s gaze flicking back to the visitor, wondering if repeating the words would make him sound like an idiot. “He said Senator Vogel’s life is in danger.”

She could have laughed at the melodrama of it. But when she glanced around, taking in the deserted station, the dull windowless chamber with its beige walls and gray carpet, with its lone fiddle-leaf fig plant yellowing in the corner, she found herself thinking, Anything is better than these spreadsheets.

“Fine,” she sighed. “Send him up.”

At least the conference room had a window and made for a change of scenery. Amanda slid a bottle of water across the table. Konstantin Nikolaievich Semonov took it gratefully and gulped it down. Amanda raised an eyebrow and said: “Would you like another?”

“Please,” he said. “It is very hot today.”

Despite the air-conditioning, Amanda noticed beads of sweat kept gathering on Semonov’s brow. She noticed too the wedding ring on his right hand, and the meticulous care with which his shirt had been patched and mended, and the gold watch on his wrist. She folded her hands atop the table. “So,” she began. “Mr. Semonov. I understand you have some information you’d like to share with us?”

“I apologize. My English isn’t very good,” he said.

“It sounds quite good to me. But if you’d rather continue in Russian, we’ll have to wait until one of my colleagues returns, because I don’t—”

“No,” he interrupted. “I am your guest, of course we will speak English. But I say this because I must have misunderstood. You work on economic affairs for the U.S. State Department?”

“That’s right. I’m an attaché in the economic section.”

“But my information does not concern economic affairs.”

“Well.” She smiled brightly. “It’s July in Italy, Mr. Semonov. The embassy is a little bare-bones at the moment.”

“I see.” After a long pause, staring at her, he said: “So you are Amanda Clarkson. Amanda Clarkson, the economic attaché.”

She could perceive, beneath his sweaty brow, a deeper perception. Something inside her twinged to attention. The detached part of her brain carefully registered it as another data point.

“That’s me!” she chirped.

“Very well.” Slowly, he nodded to himself. “Very well, Amanda Clarkson. Even if you are the economic attaché, I hope you can help me. I come to you today with information concerning Mr. Robert Vogel. He is a senator in your country, from the state of New York. A powerful man, I understand. An aging man, too. I have read reports that his health has been declining recently.”

Another twinge. “Yes,” she said. “I’ve heard that, too.”

“He is part of a delegation en route to Cairo. Yesterday evening, the delegation boarded a plane in Washington. In less than an hour, that plane is due to land. A military convoy of the Egyptian government will escort the Americans from the airport to the Four Seasons, where they are staying. Tonight, at six o’clock, the convoy will escort the Americans to the Heliopolis Palace, where they will be dining as guests of the president.”

He could have googled this, though, she told herself. It would only take a few minutes.

“The military convoy will accompany the American delegation for the duration of their three-day visit.” Semonov spoke with bureaucratic precision. “The Egyptian president is determined that their safety be absolute. He does not want his guests exposed to unstable elements. There will be one exception, though. Tomorrow morning, the delegation will be participating in a review of the Egyptian military. This is the primary purpose of the trip to Cairo. For the American visitors to assess the strength of their ally.”

She kept smiling, even as her pulse accelerated. Sure. Nothing unusual about this. Nothing weird about a Russian man walking in with detailed knowledge of the Senate intelligence committee’s movements.

“During this review the Americans will, of course, be surrounded by the military,” Semonov continued. “It will be the safest place in all Egypt. Therefore, there is no need for the convoy. The Americans will be free to move about, speaking to various generals, examining the artillery, interacting with soldiers. The review will begin at eleven a.m. At that hour, the temperature is typically thirty-seven or thirty-eight degrees centigrade. They will be assembled outdoors. There will be very little shade. The president has ordered that the review last no more than one hour. He is aware that several of his guests are older and may struggle in the heat. Unfortunately, his precaution will not be enough. Just before noon, Senator Robert Vogel will suffer a heat-induced stroke. He will be taken to the nearby hospital, where he will be pronounced dead.”

She swallowed. There was no mistaking this internal quiver. But now, right now, it was important not to spook him. “Okay.” Piano, piano, as a local might say. “Okay. Mr. Semonov. Let me begin with an obvious question. How can you know about a stroke before it happens?”

“I can’t. But there are certain chemicals that produce symptoms in the human body that appear very similar to those of a stroke. So similar that there is no reason to question the initial conclusion. Especially when the deceased is eighty-one years old and in frail health.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Semonov. What you’re describing sounds like an assassination.”


“And how could you know about this assassination before it happens?”

“Because I work with the men who will carry out the assassination.”

“And where is that?”

He squeezed the water bottle in agitation, the thin plastic crackling in his hands. “You don’t believe me, do you?”

“It’s not a question of—”

“Then I should leave. I shouldn’t be here!”

He began to stand, but Amanda placed a hand on his arm to stop him. “Mr. Semonov,” she said. “I want to believe you. I want to take this seriously. But to do that, I’m going to need more information.” She paused. “You work with the men who will carry out the assassination. Where do you work?”

The tension in his forehead was visible. “I work for the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.”

“And which division, specifically?”

“The Main Intelligence Directorate,” he whispered. “The GRU.”

“Jesus Christ,” he said. “Cole, are you drunk?”

Osmond Brown stood behind his desk, hands planted on his hips, narrowing his eyes at Amanda Cole, who had followed him into his office as he returned from lunch. Amanda Cole, who was more than thirty years his junior. Amanda Cole, who worked for him, but who never seemed to remember that goddamn fact.

Amanda closed the door and gestured for him to sit down. There was something especially impertinent about this coming from her, what with her slight stature and the childish freckles across her nose. He almost snapped at her (this was his goddamn office, he would decide whether to sit down), but then he shut his mouth and sank into his chair. Over the past year, Osmond had discovered that it was difficult to raise his voice at Amanda. She never flinched, no matter how much he yelled, and this was strangely deflating.

“He’s telling the truth,” she said.

“And how on God’s green earth can you know a thing like that?”

“Because he’s scared. He’s terrified. It’s not the kind of thing you can fake.”

“Did you ever stop to consider,” Osmond said, in his Mississippi drawl, which often grew exaggerated after a glass or two of wine, “that maybe the man is so goddamn terrified because he’s being dangled as bait to the Americans?”

“They would never pick a man like him for a dangle.”

“Oh yes. My apologies, Ms. Cole. I seem to have forgotten you’re a mind reader, too.”

“If the Russians were trying to sell us on an agent,” she continued, ignoring Osmond’s sarcasm, as she always did, “they’d pick someone who looks the part. Someone with an obvious motive. Greed, preferably. Greed is always the most convincing.”

Osmond scowled. “Let me guess. Now you’re going to tell me that your new friend doesn’t have a greedy bone in his body.”

She held up her wrist. “His watch. He’s wearing a TAG Heuer. So he’s well-off, he’s comfortable, but his shirt is mended in at least half a dozen places. He clearly isn’t materialistic. Not enough to make for a convincing dangle. The Russians only pick people who look the part. Semonov doesn’t, and he’s terrified. That fear is the information we’re working with. And in less than twenty-four hours, there’s going to be—”

“Whoa,” he interrupted. “Whoa! Hold it right there. You’re acting like we have to do something about this.”

“Well, yeah. Of course we have to.”

“Says who, Cole?”

“Says the evidence, sir.”

Across the expanse of his desk, Osmond regarded her. Despite his best intentions, he had allowed himself a glass—okay, two glasses—of Vermentino with lunch. How could he resist when it paired so beautifully with the sweet summer cantaloupe? But now he was tired, and he had a headache, and this whole thing sounded like a boondoggle, and Amanda was possibly the stubbornest person he had ever met. Dealing with this woman was one of the more exhausting parts of the job. And yet, he knew her kryptonite. Amanda Cole did, despite appearances, possess an essential kernel of respect for the Way Things Were Done. She would push back, but she wasn’t one to disobey a direct order. At the end of the day, he saw it as his task to remind her of her fealty.

Well, clearly she was all worked up about this. Why not indulge her a few moments longer, before he lowered the boom? So he settled back into his chair, folded his hands on his stomach, and said: “Okay, Cole. Let’s talk this one through. Let’s say we decide to believe this guy, this what’s-his-name—”

“His name is Semonov,” she interrupted. “Konstantin Semonov.”

“Sure. Okay. Let’s say we decide to believe this Semonov, and decide that the threat to Bob Vogel is real, and decide to act on it. We’d need to get word to Senator Vogel about what’s happening and tell him to skip the review. How do we do that?”

“Verbally. Send someone to tell him. One of our people in Cairo.”

“But when? Where? How? Every minute of the delegation’s schedule is accounted for. They have some downtime at the Four Seasons, but you can’t just have one of our people waltz in. Everyone in that hotel, from the maids to the managers to the goddamn window-washers, every person in that hotel is on someone else’s payroll. That hotel is wired six ways to Sunday. So if we send one of our people to deliver the message verbally, what happens when that person arrives at the Four Seasons and beelines straight for Senator Vogel? Hmm?”

The furrow of her brow softened slightly. I’m a good teacher, Osmond thought. No one ever wants to admit it, but I’ve got a knack for this part.

“You think they want to blow our network in Cairo,” she said.


Amanda nodded. Osmond was pleased. See, at the end of the day, he just wanted these kids (and yes, they were kids, he was older than most of their fathers) to be a little more careful. Not to get themselves killed for no good reason.

But instead of thanking him, she said: “I don’t buy it.”

He sighed. “And why is that?”

“He’s telling the truth. I’m certain he is. And don’t just say he’s their useful idiot, that his bosses at the GRU gave him this line to swallow and counted on him feeling guilty and running to the Americans. He’s smart. He’d see through it. He saw through my cover in about three seconds flat.”

“Look, Amanda, I get it. You’re bored out of your mind.” He tapped a finger against his temple. “Nothing happens in Rome. This isn’t where the action is. And they know that, too. They’re trying to use that boredom against you.”

“You’re really suggesting we do nothing about this?”

“I’m not suggesting. I’m telling.”

She shook her head, but her eyes went glassy. She tended to do this, to go quiet and retreat into cool detachment when she was overruled. Osmond respected her for fighting as hard as she did, but he also respected her for knowing when to surrender.

“We’re the soft underbelly,” he explained, feeling that pleasant flood of paternal benevolence that was, quite frankly, the only aspect of the job that still made him feel good. “Our networks in the Middle East are airtight. It wouldn’t work to target them directly. So the Russians try to take the back door. They plant a seed in Rome and hope the tendril reaches Cairo. All they need to do is keep an eye on Senator Vogel. If we send someone to meet Vogel at his hotel, bingo: they’ve just identified the Cairo network. It’s clever, isn’t it? So the best response, or actually the only response, is to do nothing. You see?”

But that was the point, Amanda thought. The scheme Osmond had just outlined was too clever by half. It wasn’t how the GRU worked. The many moving parts, the subtle contingencies: it lacked their signature bluntness.

Amanda left his office and walked through the bullpen, back toward the door that led to the rest of the embassy. One of her colleagues called after her (“Hey, Cole, that guy in the conference room one of yours? The fat guy with glasses? James Gandolfini past his prime?”), but she didn’t hear him.

She buzzed through the unmarked door, walked down a hallway, down a flight of stairs, down another hallway. Through the glassed-in walls of the conference room, she saw what her colleagues would have seen as they returned from lunch. Semonov, pacing back and forth, like a goldfish desperate to escape the confines of his fishbowl.

Amanda had been trying to figure out what to say, how to explain this failure of hers, but as soon as he turned and looked at her, he seemed to know. As she closed the door, Semonov shook his head. She felt a strange gratitude for his perception. It was a terrible feeling, having to deliver this kind of bad news, having to shatter another person’s desperate hope. Semonov had just spared her that feeling.

He sat down and dropped his head into his hands. She sat beside him, touched him on the elbow. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m really, really sorry. I did everything I could.”

He was saying something, but his voice was muffled by his hands.

“Mr. Semonov?” she said. “I can’t understand you.”

When he lifted his head, tears were spilling from his eyes. “My mother died last year,” he said. “It was a spring day. The lilacs were in bloom.”

“Oh,” she said. “I’m, um… I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Just before she died, she called me to her side, and she said: ‘Kostya, you have a soft heart. You must be careful. The world suffers when there are too many soft hearts.’ She was right! I’ve been a fool.” He shook his head. “A fool of the worst kind. I knew that this day would come. And what did I think? That I could stop it? Look at what I have done!”

Amanda slid a box of tissues across the table. Semonov looked at her with watery appreciation and blew his nose with a comedic honk.

Your menagerie, her best friend Georgia once called it. Your strange little petting zoo.

Bartenders in seedy dives, hostesses in swanky clubs. Taxi drivers with photographic memories. Hairdressers with a knack for gossip. Restaurant owners with private back rooms. Chambermaids and bellboys and window-washers at five-star hotels. They liked making the extra money on the side, and they liked how seriously she took them. They liked to feel that occasional brush with danger. Together they comprised her strange little petting zoo. It was part of the job, collecting people like this, although Amanda tended to hang on to the assets even when they had ceased offering any obvious utility.

Look at what I have done! Semonov had exclaimed. She was curious about what, exactly, he meant by that; what role he played in the Vogel story. The expense reports could wait. So Amanda patted his hand and said: “Tell me about your mother. What was her name?”

In late July the sun didn’t set until 8:30 p.m. As Amanda walked home, a benevolent twilight lit her way. Past the church that housed the famous Bernini carvings; past the imposing marble fountain that marked the terminus of an old Roman aqueduct; past the ancient Baths of Diocletian. The seventeenth century, the sixteenth century, the third century. “It sounds like you’re practically tripping over history,” her mother once said. And she meant it as a good thing, but history, Amanda knew, was a tricky Janus. History provided important context, but history also exerted a dangerous narrative gravity. If you expected the present to be a continuation of the past, you weren’t actually looking at the present through clear eyes.

“It’s like this,” Amanda once said to Georgia. “Remember how we used to see that old man feeding pigeons outside school every afternoon?”

“Hector? I loved Hector.”

“And you could reasonably assume that you’d see Hector every afternoon, right?”

Georgia squinted. “Why do I feel like I’m being set up?”

“But then one afternoon Hector doesn’t show up. And everyone is so surprised. Because if Hector does the same thing ninety-nine days in a row, then obviously he’s going to do the same thing on the hundredth day. But where is it written that the past ever predicts the future?”

“So you can’t bank on anything? Is that really how you look at the world?”

Amanda shrugged. “I mean, no. Not really. But I try to not be surprised when the pattern gets broken.”

But that night, on her walk home, she wasn’t engaged in such profound considerations. As Amanda squeezed past a crowd outside the Repubblica metro, she could only think about how hungry she was, having missed lunch thanks to Semonov. The refrigerator in her apartment was bare. For the umpteenth night in a row, she was going to have to stop at her usual stall in the Mercato Centrale. The market was housed in an old wing of the Termini station, just a few blocks from her apartment. Stalls sold colorful heaps of vegetables, creamy orbs of burrata, dimpled sheets of focaccia, blistered rounds of pizza. Her favorite stall sold fresh pasta and premade sauces. Amanda had been pleased to discover that this demanded no more effort than did a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese. And it tasted good and it was cheap. She had decided, a long time ago, that this was the easiest way to feed herself.

During her visit last September, Georgia had been appalled by this habit. “You can’t eat the same thing every night, Amanda. You know that you’re in Rome, right?”

“I just don’t care that much.”

“This coming from the girl who once ate a scorpion in Bangkok. Who once drank pig’s blood in Seoul. Who once—”

Amanda laughed. “Oh, yeah, you mean the girl who was a drunken shitshow and didn’t know what she was doing with her life? You mean that girl? Should we bring her back?”

“You’re not giving her enough credit. She was fun.”

“She was crazy.”

“Well, she’s still in there. I know she is. No amount of Talbots can cover her up.”

“This is J.Crew, thank you very much. And also, fuck you. I like Talbots.”

Georgia laughed. Curled up on the couch in the apartment in Rome, she prodded Amanda with her foot. “I don’t understand it. Your mom is so chic. And even your dad, you know, he has decent taste, in that boring Waspy way. And you, somehow, have the world’s worst style.”

“So this is my rebellion. Besides, who am I trying to impress? Other than my bitchy best friend?”

Georgia rolled her eyes. “It’s not about impressing anyone. It’s about a little self-respect.”

At the market, Amanda also stopped at the wine stall. She rarely kept wine in the house, but it had been a long day, and she needed it. She unlocked her apartment to find the air inside hot and stale, so she opened the windows in hopes of a breeze. Sometimes she wondered what the neighbors across the courtyard must think of her. This American woman who came and went at strange hours, whose freckles and smile suggested friendliness, but who never offered anything but the smallest of talk.

Ten minutes later, having changed into a ratty old pair of shorts and a T-shirt, she flopped on the couch with her bowl of pasta and a glass of wine. It had been a marathon day. Amanda and Semonov had covered a good deal of his life story. How he had hoped to work as a translator for the GRU, only to be assigned the considerably more boring job of fabricating passports and visas. How his wife, an Italian woman named Chiara, had moved to Moscow for work, which explained his presence in Italy: they were visiting her family. He and Chiara had met in a Moscow metro station. She was lost and disoriented, and Semonov helped her find her way. He couldn’t help smiling like a schoolboy when he talked about his wife. As the hours passed, Amanda had felt increasingly certain that he was telling the truth. She didn’t know why exactly; she just knew.

She stabbed at the pasta with her fork. Here was the problem, though. She had been wrong before. Maybe Osmond was right, maybe boredom was causing her to jump at the chance for excitement. And she was bored. Was this just ego at work? This yearning for motion, for action, this desire to prove that she wasn’t just sitting around, watching her muscles atrophy from neglect? Besides, she knew the odds. Years ago, during training at the Farm, she learned to be skeptical of walk-ins and defectors. Those things happened in the movies, not in real life. To recruit someone took work. The old-fashioned, time-tested, carrot-and-stick work of psychological manipulation. A Russian walks in and warns of a threat against an American politician? Things like that didn’t just happen. Not according to the agency. Not according, specifically, to the people at the top of the agency, who believed they had earned their way to those positions of power. The idea that the world was random—that the universe was the product of chaos—that just didn’t jibe.

But, see, on this particular point, she was stubborn. Like she’d said to Georgia: sometimes the world was random. But that look on Osmond’s face had kept her from pushing. She knew a losing battle when she saw one.

Semonov had eventually looked at his watch. He had to go; his wife would be waiting for him. “Where are you staying?” Amanda asked. And when he gave her the name of his hotel, near the Piazza del Popolo, she felt a small ping. Good, she thought. If it comes to it, that makes things easier. She walked him to the lobby and shook his hand. “Enjoy the rest of your time in Rome,” she said, in her friendliest we-know-you-have-a-choice-in-airlines tone. “And, Mr. Semonov—”

“Please,” he interrupted. “Call me Kostya.”

“Well, Kostya. Thank you for coming in and talking to me. I know it wasn’t easy.”

Amanda stood up and carried her bowl and wineglass to the sink. She recorked the wine and placed it in the cupboard. As she climbed into bed and switched off the light, she thought of how his face had darkened at their goodbye. He looked grateful for her sympathy, but mostly he looked sad; her sympathy wouldn’t change the course of events.

The night was hot and still. The fan at the foot of her bed did little to help. Amanda’s mind traced an endless loop. She should have done more. No. She had done everything she could. She thought of Semonov, at his hotel across town, and wondered if he would lie awake all night, too.

Osmond Brown was usually the first to arrive in the station, but that Friday morning, the door to his office remained closed. Amanda stared at it, puzzled, until one of her colleagues noticed. “He’s out today,” the colleague said. “Frolicking with the ambassador in Capri this weekend.”

“Right.” She nodded. “Forgot.”

She looked at the clock on the wall: 8:47 a.m. Having lain awake all night, she was almost delirious from lack of sleep. The morning stuttered by in minuscule fragments. 9:03 a.m.: writing her contact report. 9:17 a.m.: locking the bathroom door and splashing water on her face. 9:42 a.m.: making a cup of coffee. 9:45 a.m.: finishing the coffee. 9:47 a.m.: considering making another. Amanda wanted to be proven wrong. She had never wanted this so badly. There was a bar on Via Ludovisi, one block from the embassy. At 12:01 p.m., she decided, at the precise moment when Senator Vogel and the rest of the delegation departed the military review and returned safely to the Four Seasons, she would go to that bar and reward herself for her wrongness with a shot of tequila.

11:06 a.m. They would have arrived by now. 11:31 a.m. They would be moving among the troops, examining the artillery, talking to the generals. She turned off her computer screen so she didn’t have to look at the time. She gnawed on her thumbnail. She jiggled her knee. One of her colleagues glanced over in mild alarm, but when he noticed the look on her face, he thought better of asking her what was wrong.

Amanda turned her screen back on. 11:57, 11:58, 11:59 a.m. Noon! Noon on the dot! She broke into a giddy smile. “I’m going to lunch!” She jumped up from her desk and reached for her bag. “If the chief calls, tell him I got drunk and went home.”

“Uh,” her colleague said. “Really? You really want me to—”

But he was interrupted by a sudden, high-pitched chirping. Halfway across the room, Amanda froze. Every computer in the bullpen was emitting that identical electronic chirp. No, she thought. No, no, no.

“Holy shit,” the colleague said. “Holy shit. Cole! Did you see this?”

She felt her stomach plummeting.

“It’s Bob Vogel,” he said. “He’s dead.”

Reading Group Guide


by Anna Pitoniak

Discussion Questions

1. Espionage remains a male-dominated world, even in the modern day. What role does gender play in Amanda Cole’s experience as a CIA officer?

2. What did you make of the character Kath Frost? She and Amanda make a compatible team, but they bring different attitudes and experiences to their espionage work. How do you think the partnership will affect the way Amanda approaches her work?

3. The question of Amanda’s father’s involvement in the plot is a central mystery. What were your theories about Charlie Cole’s role in the story? Did you agree with Amanda's choices, regarding how much loyalty to place with her father, and how much to place with her job and country?

4. What do you think The Helsinki Affair says about the relationship between national governments and intelligence agencies? How does the secretive work of the CIA, and other intelligence agencies, affect the events that play out in the public eye?

5. Discuss the moral dilemmas that Amanda faces throughout the novel. Are there moments where she must compromise her principles for the greater good? If so, what did you think of those moments? Have you ever felt that you had to compromise your own principles for the greater good?

6. The Helsinki Affair is described as a female-centric twist on the spy thriller genre. In what ways does the book challenge or subvert traditional spy novel tropes, and what does it add to the genre?

7. Consider the theme of betrayal in the novel. What were the instances of betrayal that struck you the most? Is it possible for the characters to trust one another after a betrayal has occurred? How does trust get reestablished?

8. The book’s title, The Helsinki Affair, might be interpreted as having multiple meanings. What do you think the title referred to?

9. What do you think the future holds for Amanda Cole, after the events of the book’s conclusion? Do you see potential for further adventures?

About The Author

Andrew Bartholomew

Anna Pitoniak is the author of Our American Friend, Necessary People, and The Futures. Before becoming a full-time author, she worked in book publishing, including as a senior editor at Random House. Anna grew up in Whistler, British Columbia. She graduated from Yale and lives in New York City.

Why We Love It

“I’m a sucker for propulsive spy thrillers, whether they’re books or movies. But so many of them feature almost all-male casts, with any female characters relegated to love interests or sexy distractions. That’s not the case with The Helsinki Affair! The spies at the center of the novel are women—ambitious, complicated, sometimes messy women. Our protagonist is CIA agent Amanda Cole. She’s stubborn and determined and impulsive—all characteristics that make her a good spy, but also a frustrating colleague! Amanda teams up with a legendary spy named Kath who is brash and funny and totally independent. They’re a fierce, often very funny dynamic duo who are impossible not to root for every step of the way in this propulsive, twisty novel.”

—Carina G., Senior Editor, on The Helsinki Affair

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 14, 2023)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668014745

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

One of the Washington Post’s Best Thrillers of 2023

“A propulsive, captivating spy novel. The Helsinki Affair asks what would happen if your greatest adversary in intelligence was… your father.”—Good Morning America

“Fills a gap in spy fiction…. Atmospheric, well-researched and packed with tradecraft, conspiracies, murder and, best of all, two fascinating women—Amanda Cole and Kath Frost—hard-nosed CIA agents who thrive on chaos and who are often smarter than their male counterparts…. Let’s hope they make an appearance in a sequel.”—Washington Post

"[An] ambitious espionage thriller ... [with a] startling finale ... Pitoniak continues to show strong instincts for the art of cloak-and-dagger."—Publishers Weekly

“In this delicious female spy novel, CIA up-and-comer Amanda and her mentor Kath untangle a global conspiracy involving Russian oligarchs and—gulp—Amanda’s own father, an agency lifer himself.”—People Magazine

“Gear up for a brilliantly plotted, complex spy thriller that not only will entertain, but will cause sincere reflection about what it means to be a person of integrity and how we can atone for our mistakes.”BookReporter

“Count on realistic and compelling storytelling here, with Pitoniak’s own level of craft well-polished.”—New York Journal of Books

“Outstanding…. A smart, well-paced, and refreshingly female-centric thriller.”—Air Mail

"The Helsinki Affair has everything: high stakes, mortal peril, moral ambiguity, torn allegiances, tradecraft and subterfuge, love and sex and loneliness, and every type of risk. I can't remember the last time I read such an enjoyable spy novel."—CHRIS PAVONE, New York Times bestselling author of The Expats

“If you are one of those people--we are not a few--who think they don't write thrillers like they used to, then The Helsinki Affair is for you. An intricate, vigorously told and splendidly entertaining tale.”—JOHN BANVILLE, author of Snow and Booker-Prize winning author of The Sea

“What makes a great spy novel? A plot that is intricate and clever but also believable and realistic. A story line that doubles back and plunges forward, that twists and turns in ways both alarming and satisfying. Heroes who are bold and cool but imperfect and all-too-human. The Helsinki Affair has it all. Move over Alan Furst and Daniel Silva and say hello to Anna PItoniak.”—EVAN THOMAS, author of Road to Surrender

“Pitoniak artfully deploys all the tricks and tropes of the spy genre, and she creates for Amanda a wonderful ally—a 73-year-old CIA superstar named Kath Frost…. The developing mentorship and friendship between Amanda and Kath as well as the unfolding of the Cole family’s unhappy past give the novel emotional weight and interest that add to its espionage plot. These excellent female spy characters deserve a series.”—Kirkus

“Pitoniak does everything well in this twisty spy thriller that should please the most discriminating connoisseur of the genre.”—Library Journal

“A must-read for fans of spy thrillers. CIA agent Amanda Cole must confront her father's past as she tries to thwart an international conspiracy. Will she be forced to choose between loyalty to her family and her allegiance to her country?”—Country Living

“A noteworthy espionage debut, with engrossing alternating story line.”—East Hampton Star

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

More books from this author: Anna Pitoniak