The Expats: Meet the spy next door

With his enjoyable debut novel, Chris Pavone has created a world most expats can identify with, but his thriller suffers from a flat-footed protagonist.

The Expats, by Chris Pavone
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Can a former CIA agent now living with her family in Luxembourg have anything in common with expatriates in the UAE?

Actually, yes. Like many expats, Kate Moore has followed her spouse halfway round the world. She is surrounded by people talking a language she doesn't understand, flummoxed by unfamiliar traffic rules, frustrated with unreliable mobile phone reception, tired of eating on rented plates while waiting for the shipping container to arrive from home, and utterly, utterly bored with doing laundry and sipping coffee among other expat mums at the American Women's Club of Luxembourg.

"On Tuesdays and Thursdays, after drop-off, she did her French homework… Two or three days a week, she went to the gym… She drove the main byways of Luxembourg - route d'Arlon, route de Thionville, route de Longwy - poking in and out of shopping plazas and malls."

The slight difference between Kate and most expats is that two secret agents may be stalking her. This bored, long-legged, expatriate ex-spy is the heroine of an impressive but flawed debut novel, The Expats. Its author, Chris Pavone, a former book editor in New York based the setting on his own experience in Luxembourg. He was an expatriate only slightly less unusual than Kate: the expat dad who follows his wife to an exotic foreign posting.

Recruited into the CIA while at university in Washington DC, Kate was immediately assigned to collect covert information and recruit more spies in Latin America. For 10 years she committed or assigned several assassinations - a turncoat agent, a major drug dealer, a would-be dictator, and other bad guys. But then she met Dexter Moore, a computer software specialist who seemed to be exactly what she wasn't and craved - a genuinely nice guy, "perfectly straightforward and undeniably respectable", with no deep secrets.

She married him, had two sons, transferred to the less-dangerous analysis unit in the CIA, and kept her own secret, never telling Dexter what she did for a living. "So then she'd believed - she'd wanted to believe, she'd needed to believe - that she could put aside her cynicism to marry this man, to lead a semblance of a normal life".

As the book opens, Dexter has been offered the job opportunity of a lifetime: to move to Luxembourg to handle internet security for a private bank, with a generous living allocation and a huge pay rise. For Kate, it seems like an equally wonderful career-ending opportunity of a lifetime: an excuse to leave the secrecy of a spying job that long ago lost its drama or purpose and has simply been an impediment to family life. She envisions holidays in St Tropez and Umbria, her sons easily becoming multilingual as they mingle with schoolmates from around the world.

Thus, off go the Moores, arriving in Frankfurt, Germany, with their US passports and "eight ugly person-sized suitcases… four carry-on bags and a purse and two computer bags and two little-child knapsacks".

Of course, expats everywhere - and in particular, the spouses of the expats whose jobs dragged the whole family abroad - have long discovered that fabled foreign cities are rarely as romantic and exciting up close as they are in fable. There are passports, visas, work permits, post-forwarding, residency permits, school registration, insurance policies and bank accounts to be arranged.

Moreover, the employed spouse (usually the husband) is constantly working long hours or away on business trips and rarely home in time for dinner. The other spouse/wife misses her own career, as well as her old friends. She feels her brain atrophying. Kate is "unable to imagine how she will ever feel like one of those other [expat] women, content in this life, sitting at a café table and laughing at the trials and tribulations of unwanted hair removal." And if she's going to be stuck in the house being cook, cleaning lady, laundress, and baby sitter, she would rather do this back home where she knew which shops had the best fresh vegetables and how to read the instructions on the power drill.

On top of all those usual troubles, Kate slowly becomes aware of some disturbing discrepancies in Dexter's explanations of his work schedule and in the overly enthusiastic friendliness of another supposed American expat couple, Julia and Bill Maclean. Why does the Macleans' flat have a perfect vantage point for potentially assassinating anyone visiting the palace of the grand duke of Luxembourg? Why does the website for Julia's alleged interior design company have no specifics, such as an address or testimonials? Why are Dexter's shoes muddy when he claims to have spent the day in Brussels?

It's time, Kate decides, to put her rusty spy gear back on.

In many ways, The Expats is a pleasure to read. It's simultaneously a well-plotted thriller with multiple layers of deception, and also a solid novel about marriage, career frustration and life overseas. Indeed, it may be the only thriller in which the heroine has to suspend her detective work in order to race to school to pick up the kids.

Kate's narrative voice is an enjoyable blend of arch and down-to-earth, with some catchy phrasing. She perfectly captures the annoying nannying tone of the automated "Julie Andrews-esque GPS" voice. What expat mother, trying to get her offspring to eat unfamiliar food, hasn't felt exactly Kate's combination of relief and self-flagellation when she says: "Luckily, the children were proving to be flexible when it came to eating different forms of sugar at breakfast."

Speaking of the children, author Pavone accomplishes the rare feat of creating young children who are realistic and not saccharine-adorable.

However, there is a serious problem with this otherwise lovely book: Kate is a lousy spy. The reader sees through Dexter, Julia, and Bill long before Kate, the supposed professional, does (although the reader will probably not guess exactly who the trio are or the full story of what they are actually seeking).

Few car owners would be likely to just hand over their car keys to a brand-new "best friend" on the friend's flimsy pretext that she had accidentally left her mobile phone in the vehicle and would spare Kate the trouble of retrieving it in the heavy rain. Nor would most people let this "friend" - who by now has been flirting outright with Dexter, and whose husband has been acting even more strangely, and whom Kate isn't even sure she likes - sit down at their home computer in privacy for as long as she wanted, on the equally flimsy pretext that her own internet service wasn't functioning. Aren't there any internet cafes in Luxembourg?

Yet Kate does both those things. She also prattles on, fails to ask obvious questions, and maintains her purported friendship with Julia, even while her suspicions grow. And the plot relies in fundamental ways on such acts of improbable naivete.

Pavone's inexperience shows in some awkward narrative shortcuts. There's too much heavy foreshadowing, such as summarising a decision as "the most important non-action of her life". Then, at the end, one key person conveniently sums up the entire convoluted scheme.

But if a reader can suspend disbelief for the unbelievable plot developments, The Expats is well worth picking up.

It's a good read, written in a lively style. And how often do expatriates get to see some version of their own life paired in a novel with an international criminal investigation across multiple countries? Just be careful before going along with the too-friendly fellow expat who knows the best little obscure restaurant in Madinat Zayed.

Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning US-based author and journalist who specialises in covering the intersection of business, finance, and social policy.