Doublespeak: A Novel (Lena Stillman series)

Written by Alisa Smith
Review by Kristen McDermott

“Fairy tales have lives of their own.” Lena Stillman, the narrator of this fine sequel to Speakeasy, knows that our deeds are one thing, but the stories we tell ourselves about them quite another. Even a brilliant, unsentimental cryptographer like Lena can fall prey to dreams and fantasies in the right circumstances, and Smith packs her novel with a propulsive plot, and her characters with twisty, complicated motives.

As the novel begins, Lena is one of the few remaining intelligence officers posted on the remote island of Shemya in the Aleutians, decoding intercepted Russian radio transmissions while struggling with ennui and cynicism about how the end of WWII left no clear winners, just an open theater for the new Cold War. Meanwhile, her co-narrator (as in the first novel), the shady accountant Byron Godfrey, is propelled out of the comfortable post-criminal life he has made by the news that Bill Bagley, his partner in his old bank-robbing gang (and Lena’s former lover) had escaped from death row in a Vancouver prison. Byron is summoned to join him in Bangkok for new, if unsavory, financial opportunities. Lena receives a similar summons and goes AWOL to answer it for reasons of her own.

The atmosphere as both Byron and Lena make their way to Thailand is torrid and cynical. Smith balances the general unpleasantness of her characters’ personalities with lush descriptions of postwar Siam. Lena and Byron become increasingly dependent on one another as Bill maneuvers them into a spy plot that may have broad international implications. For this reason, readers will want to have read Speakeasy first; otherwise the sinister hold that Bill has on the two narrators will seem implausible and inexplicable. As a sequel, however, this is a satisfying adventure, especially for readers who wish Graham Greene and John le Carré had created more strong female protagonists.