Chris Pavone’s debut thriller, The Expats, is so well crafted it feels like a machine designed to activate the pleasure centers of anybody raised on post-Bond espionage tales. Exotic, money-soaked milieu? Check. Intricate, spy-versus-spy intrigue? Got that too. Occasional detours into dark alleys? Present and accounted for!
A tweak you couldn’t foresee is that the trained killer in The Expats stresses over when she’ll find time to do the family’s laundry.
The novel’s heroine, Kate, is a CIA operative in her late 30s who quits the agency to move to Luxembourg with her two young boys and brilliant if secretive husband, Dexter. The latter has just taken a lucrative job handling IT security for an international bank. Pavone easily could have played Kate’s double life for laughs: Now she’s grocery shopping! Now she’s breaking into the office of a suspected spy! But his prose remains stubbornly, impressively square-jawed. This story is serious business, he wants us to know, making The Expats not just a thrilling novel but a thoughtful one: How will Kate and Dexter manage their shifting circumstances? If your partner has ever suddenly announced a serious life change, you’ll easily relate to their predicament. (Though yours probably involved less gunplay.)
The parallels between double-agentry and adultery are obvious, once Pavone points them out: What is a spy’s cover story, after all, but an act of infidelity? Dexter is ignorant of his wife’s periodically lethal past. But as Kate settles into their new life in “cobblestony old Europe,” helping her kids transition from Spongebob Squarepants to Bob L’Éponge, she learns that Dexter is hiding aspects of his own gig too. She grows especially suspicious of Bill and Julia, a comely couple who seem to materialize everywhere Kate and Dexter do. In the course of a few months, her life of day trips and long lunches with fellow moms gives way to a paranoia that prompts her to dust off her spycraft — and picklocks.