Vivian Miller is a dedicated CIA counterintelligence analyst assigned to uncover the identities of Russian sleeper cell leaders operating in the United States. She’s developed an algorithm for identifying Russian agents — seemingly normal people living and working in plain sight. The algorithm is about to be tested and, if successful, could land her the promotion she needs. After managing to access the computer of a suspected Russian operative, Vivian stumbles onto a secret dossier of deep-cover agents within America’s borders.
A few clicks later, everything that matters to her -— her job, her husband, and even her four children -— are threatened.
Vivian swore an oath to defend her country against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Now she finds herself in an unfathomable crisis, torn between loyalty and betrayal, allegiance and treason, love and suspicion.
What do you do when everything you trust might be a lie?
Karen Cleveland was a CIA analyst for eight years. Her work focused on counterterrorism and included a six-month stint on a joint FBI terrorism task force. She wrote her riveting debut novel, Need to Know, during her 2016 maternity leave following the birth of her second son. Need to Know benefits from her experiences as both a CIA analyst and mother.
Vivian Miller is happily married. She and her husband, Matt, have four young children, promising careers, and a mortgage. So, ambition aside, Vivian really needs the larger paycheck that will come with a promotion. She succeeds at hacking into the computer of a Russian operative — a handler — and examines the various folders on the hard drive. One is labeled “Friends” and contains five image files (photographs). Vivian knows that five sleepers are assigned to each handler. As she clicks on the third of the five files, the face that appears on her computer screen is “so familiar, so expected — and yet not” because the image is where it does not belong. Unbelievably, Vivian is staring into the face of her husband.
At that point in Cleveland’s stunning first book, “icy fingers close around [Vivian’s] heart and squeeze.” Those same fingers tighten around the reader’s heart as the fast-paced thriller takes off. Vivian finds herself caught up in a moral conundrum of epic proportions, desperate to uncover a rational explanation for her discovery that will allay her suspicions and fears. Vivian is faced with unthinkable choices. Can she betray her country in order to save her marriage and family? Does she have the strength to uphold the oath she took to safeguard her country against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and report her findings to her superiors, knowing how draconian the consequences will be? Cleveland takes her readers on Vivian’s journey as she considers the ethical and legal implications of the decisions she must make and the stakes grow increasingly higher.
Cleveland has cleverly constructed a believable, empathetic protagonist in Vivian, who knows that her actions will have a far-reaching and, perhaps, devastating impact on her children. She does not know who, if anyone, she can trust, and drastically complicates her plight when she follows her first instinct. With each succeeding chapter, Vivian finds herself and her family facing more dangers and complications that require her to calculate her best options.
Need to Know is populated with intriguing supporting players, primarily Matt. Vivian never had any reason to mistrust his commitment to her and their family. But as she struggles to discern the truth, she recalls how she and Matt met and fell in love, the early days of their marriage, and the details he provided about his background and family. She realizes how she may have been too gullible and complacent. Still, Matt is entirely forthcoming when confronted with the truth . . . isn’t he? Cleveland skillfully — indeed, agonizingly — keeps readers guessing, along with Vivian, about Matt’s allegiances. The idea for the story was, in fact, sparked by Cleveland’s own romance with her future husband. As a newly hired CIA analyst, Cleveland was repeatedly warned about foreign intelligence attempts at intimacy as a means to infiltrate American ranks. Cleveland recalls wondering, “What if he is too good to be true, and he isn’t who he says he is?” Although her doubts were assuaged, the concept of betrayal and its far-reaching implications ultimately served as the inspiration for Need to Know when Cleveland decided she needed a break from the stresses of counter-terrorism and wanted to explore writing.
As Vivian becomes increasingly desperate to save her family, she turns to a trusted ally within the FBI for assistance. Cleveland smartly refuses to provide a clear path to freedom for Vivian, literally holding readers in suspense until the jaw-dropping, terrifying last page of the book.
Cleveland has penned a stunning, tautly drafted first novel that deserves to be a wildly successful bestseller. Need to Know expertly combines hard-driving tension with surprising emotional wallops and plot twists that make it an exhilarating read. Whether Cleveland’s second novel, a thriller set in Washington, D.C., is a sequel to Need to Know or an entirely new tale, I am anxious to read more from this talented, insightful new author.