If you love spy thrillers and you’re not reading David McCloskey’s books, you’re missing out in a big way.
Perhaps the most exciting spy novelist since Jason Matthews, McCloskey broke out in 2021 with Damascus Station, a John le Carre-like adventure that took the thriller world by storm. Now, McCloskey is back with Moscow X, another can’t-miss thriller that’s sure to stand among the year’s very best.
Just ahead of the release of Moscow X, I caught up with McCloskey, who went on the record for our Five Questions segment, and I asked him about everything from how working for the CIA has helped him as a novelist to what’s next for him that this book is finally out. Trust me, you won’t want to miss his teaser for his next project, so read the full Q&A below, then make sure to pickup your copy of Moscow X, now available wherever books are sold.
TRBS: Before we get into the new book, I want to go back to your 2021 smash hit, DAMASCUS STATION, which absolutely blew up and has been praised by writers, readers, and critics alike. Did you ever expect that level of success leading up to the book’s release? And what has it been like to watch the feedback and reader reactions the last two years?
McCloskey: No, never. Writing is a lonely team sport, at the end of the day, but your team’s pretty small and even though your friends and family will (usually) say nice things about your books, you really don’t know how the story will resonate with readers more broadly. I knew that with DAMASCUS STATION I had a story that I was proud of – a book that I would want on my own nightstand – but I think reader reaction is always going to be a mystery. I really had no clue how the novel would be received. Two years on and I’ve been absolutely blown away by the response. It’s a very surreal and energizing process to watch a story catch on, to hear from readers, and to see this thing I wrote (and often remember as an unruly Word document on my computer) out there in the wild. I’m very lucky.
TRBS: Previously, you were a CIA analyst and former consultant at McKinsey & Company. While at the CIA, you worked in field stations across the Middle East and briefed senior White House officials and Arab royalty. That’s quite the resume! When did you know you wanted to be an author, what made you finally take the plunge, and how does your background help you as a writer?
McCloskey: There was no conscious decision to become an author. It was all an organic, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other process I left CIA in 2014 and spent a few months writing, mostly to process my time working on the Syrian civil war. That experience led me to realize that I enjoyed the act of writing and that it offered some way to be a better version of myself and to see the world more clearly. But I took a consulting job shortly thereafter and more or less shelved the writing for five years, when, finally, thanks to a number of things falling into place, I was able to take six months off. Because of that earlier experience, I knew I wanted to spend the time writing, and this go-round I decided to see if I could actually write a book.
My background as a CIA analyst has been a tremendous help along the way. I’m writing spy fiction with a good dose of tradecraft and procedure and bureaucracy – for humor and authenticity, in equal measure – so having some background in how CIA and the espionage business works is definitely helpful.
TRBS: Who are some of your favorite authors, and what are some good books that you’ve read recently?
McCloskey: There are so many, but to name a few: John Le Carre, Charles McCarry, Joe Kanon, David Ignatius, Kathleen Kent, Paul Vidich, I.S. Berry, Martin Cruz Smith, Steven Pressfield, Len Deighton, Philipp Meyer, Alma Katsu, Anthony Doerr, Ian Fleming, Charles Cumming, Flynn Berry, Daniel Silva, Brad Thor, Don Bentley, Connor Sullivan, Taylor Moore, Jack Carr, Mark Greaney, Gregg Hurwitz, Simon Gervais, Alan Furst, Mick Herron. Maybe that was more than a few. And I’m sure I left so many off.
Some great books, with recency bias toward my nightstand pile:
THE SON – Philipp Meyer
THE PEACOCK AND THE SPARROW – I.S. Berry
BEIRUT STATION – Paul Vidich
A MAN AT ARMS – Steven Pressfield
COMANCHES – T.R. Fehrenbach
RICOCHET – Taylor Moore
WOLF TRAP – Connor Sullivan
TRBS: Now, getting into MOSCOW X, where did the story idea come from for this book, and without giving anything away, can you tell readers a little bit about it?
McCloskey: Moscow X sprang from a striking image that settled in my mind during a long walk: A woman on horseback rides away from a burning farmhouse. I believed Russians would be involved. I did not know how, or why, or when. I also did not know why the woman was riding, nor how the fire had started. I did not know the woman’s name. But there, in that image, I sensed the possibility of a world, and felt that I should be the one to go discover it. Moscow X is the road there.
Eventually the plot clarified around a single question: what would it look like if CIA took the gloves off in its conflict against Vladimir Putin? The answer in the novel, without giving too much away, is for the officers of Moscow X to plot a daring covert action campaign to sow chaos inside Putin’s regime. Two Agency officers under non-official cover, one a lawyer, another a horse breeder and dealer, are asked to put their lives and identities on the line. A Russian intelligence officer of singular resiliency navigates the chaos of Moscow power politics, duty to family, and her own desire for freedom amid a world of constraints. A dogged and fanatical Russian investigator tries to quash the conspiracy. An aging Putin himself makes an appearance. In the end it became a story of modern espionage, of course, but also (I hope) a story about love, betrayal, loyalty, and vengeance amid the shadow war between Washington and Moscow.
TRBS: Lastly, now that MOSCOW X is finally in bookstores, what’s next for you?
McCloskey: Up next is a modern homage to the Le Carre classic TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. It’s a present-day mole hunt inside the upper echelons of CIA featuring the wonderfully deranged Artemis Aphrodite Procter – who was in DAMASCUS STATION and MOSCOW X – in the George Smiley role of chief mole hunter. It is a wild ride, and I’m really happy with how it’s coming out.
Praised as “One of the hardest working, most thoughtful, and fairest reviewers out there” by #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa Scottoline, Ryan Steck has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). Steck also works full-time as a freelance editor and is building a growing community on Twitch. His debut thriller, FIELDS OF FIRE, which #1 New York Times bestselling author Jack Carr says “will leave you speechless and begging for more,” is now available. His second novel, LETHAL RANGE, comes out on August 8th. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. And to take part in free, exclusive BOOK CLUBS each month, join The Real Book Spy on Discord.