It doesn’t always work out that I get a theme to exploit in my column, but this time I got lucky: three novels of modern-day Russia and a Mystery of the Month set in steamy Bangkok whisk readers away on a suspense-laden magic carpet ride across the far reaches of the Eastern Hemisphere. Loosely based on the real-life story of a disgraced Russian billionaire, The Hunted, traces the trajectory of Alex Konevitch, a brilliant entrepreneur riding the crest of the economic tsunami that is the new Russia. All waves must eventually crash ashore, though, and Alex’s is going to crash bigger than most. The problems start when he hires an ex-KGB thug as his head of corporate security, a mistake akin to hiring the proverbial fox to guard the henhouse. Alex finds himself stripped of his assets and forced into a life on the run, scarcely one step ahead of a lethal team of assassins. Brian Haig takes every opportunity to roast the Russian hierarchy, portraying Gorbachev as “pathetically naïve,” and his successor Yeltsin as a “loudmouthed lush.” Still, amid the chaos, a theme emerges: despite the dubious leadership skills of the power players, a clever and ruthless element is rising phoenix-like from the ashes of the Soviet Union, and heaven help whoever stands in their path, especially the aforementioned Alex Konevitch. An author’s note at the end offers a brief look at the tragedy and triumph of Konevitch’s real-life doppelganger, Alex Konanykhin, a fitting coda for this crackling suspense novel.
Keeping the Cold War hot
The chaotic milieu of post-Soviet-era Russia forms the backdrop for Brent Ghelfi’s series featuring Alexei “Volk” Volkovoy, a shadowy underworld figure who doubles as an agent for an enigmatic quasi-governmental individual known simply as “The General.” In The Venona Cable, the third installment of the series, Volk finds himself dispatched hither and yon, from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, in an effort to avenge the death of a compatriot, and to establish the facts about a legendary reputed double agent—a man who happens to be Volk’s estranged father. Incidentally, the Venona Cable was a real-life KGB missive intercepted by the Allies, which was instrumental in the arrest and conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for their part in providing atomic weapons secrets to the Soviets. The Venona Cable offers an intriguing fictional backstory to this highlight of Cold War espionage, as well as giving fans a further look into the complex, violent and yet strongly moral character of protagonist Volk. (A quick note: for an in-depth look at the true history of the Venona Cable, have a look at the website of the PBS Nova television series “Secrets, Lies and Atomic Spies.”)
Serious spy games
This may seem a bit of a non sequitur, but I have been a big fan of Brit comedy team Fry (Stephen) and Laurie (Hugh) for years, so when I saw their complimentary blurbs on the cover of my review copy of Alex Dryden’s Red to Black, I eagerly plunged into the book, anticipating a rollicking tongue-in-cheek espionage romp. I could not have been farther afield in my expectations. Red to Black is, instead, a critical fictional look at the new Russia, which, under close examination, looks remarkably like the old Russia, complete with pogroms, intimidation, stifling of the press and heavy curtailment of personal freedoms. Dryden’s debut novel chronicles the adventures of British spy Finn and his Russian counterpart Anna, each charged with extracting sensitive information from the other. Both are young, clever and beautiful, so it is no surprise that with close contact they would begin to feel a strong affection for one another, complicating their respective missions in ways neither could begin to foresee. This of course begs the question: who is playing whom? The story is told primarily in flashback by Anna, from the safety of a medieval vault on the southern border of Germany, at a far remove from her singularly unpleasant Russian handlers. Dryden skillfully weaves together the disparate elements of love story, taut spy novel and contemporary political treatise into one seamless volume.
Mystery of the month
Breathing Water, Timothy Hallinan’s long-awaited (by me, at least) follow-up to last year’s The Fourth Watcher, has finally arrived, and I am happy to say it is well worth the wait. For those unfamiliar with Hallinan’s earlier work, his Bangkok thrillers feature gonzo expat travel writer Poke Rafferty, author of Looking for Trouble in . . . (insert exotic Asian locale here). He certainly has no trouble finding trouble, and in fact trouble often finds him—this time in the person of a ruthless mob boss who is the subject of Rafferty’s forthcoming book.
A biography of this sort will inevitably polarize opinions—and promises to reveal sensitive information that the power elite would prefer remain unearthed. Almost immediately, an anonymous death threat arrives, warning Rafferty not to write the book. Problem is, equally influential forces want to see the book go forward, and they respond with death threats of their own. What’s a boy to do?
At the heart of the action is a baby-selling ring, a reflection of a real-life heartbreak that plagues the Third World, featuring a pair of charismatic young guerilla urchins who wage covert war on the Bangkok criminal element at every turn. Breathing Water is action-packed and steamily atmospheric, and as cleverly plotted a mystery as you are likely to read this year. A final note: as a book reviewer, or as a Japanese immigration agent referred to me, a “rittererry clitic” (soon to be the new job title on my business cards), I get countless new books to read, and never have to pay a cent for them. In fact, I have been known to become somewhat cranky at the notion of having to shell out my hard-earned cash, particularly at pricey international airport bookstores, where I most often find myself short of reading material. Tim Hallinan is highly placed on the short list of authors whose books I would happily pay retail to read; if you think about it, that has to be just about the highest compliment a book reviewer (or rittererry clitic) can pay.