As you can guess from the spoiler-alert title of The Taking of K-129: How the CIA Used Howard Hughes to Steal a Russian Sub in the Most Daring Covert Operation in History, the CIA was able to retrieve a sunken Soviet submarine and study it for military secrets.

What you don’t know, however, is how this amazing covert recovery was accomplished — the feats of maritime engineering and the spy agency’s chutzpah in conducting the operation in the public eye, disguising it as an undersea mining venture for a company owned by reclusive and eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.

That synopsis may sound like something from a lower-shelf Clive Cussler naval-adventure novel, but it’s a true story, meticulously chronicled by author Josh Dean (Dutton, 404 pp., ***½ out of four stars).

K-129 was an 8-year-old Soviet nuclear ballistic missile submarine that went missing in the North Pacific during a routine combat patrol in March 1968. On board were 98 men and three nuclear missiles. The Soviets searched for 73 days without success.

The United States desperately wanted to find the submarine, to gain an edge against the Soviets in the Cold War. A series of undersea hydrophones, set up by the U.S. Navy starting in the 1950s, gave officials enough data to calculate the sub’s position.

But the sub was three miles down. And the Soviets would have to be kept unaware of any recovery attempt.

So it was a two-fold, expensive problem: a near-impossible engineering challenge coupled with an overwhelming need for secrecy. But the reward would be ample amounts of intelligence on Soviet codes, nuclear missile makeup and capability, guidance systems and submarine construction.

The CIA’s answer was to build a large ship capable of lifting the sub wreckage from the sea floor, and cloaking the entire operation as a mining endeavor run by Howard Hughes.

It’s a complicated affair, but Dean relates it simply and completely. From undersea searches to maritime architecture to spy agency intrigue, the author excels at making complex operations understandable to the layman.

The story’s level of detail is impressive. We learn the major players in the undertaking, how they work together and what skills they bring to the endeavor.

The most fascinating descriptions, even to non-engineer…