In this testosterone rampage, a super-studly master thief pulls off gonzo caper in post-Soviet Russia.
Having absorbed every cliché of Bond-knockoff tale-telling—the outsize villains, the world-weary cynicism, the sexy girl—debut novelist Ghelfi breathlessly parlays them all again. The girl is comely Valya, whom protagonist Volk (the name means “wolf”) meets cute as a “mud-masked Chechen fighter dwarfed by the smoking Kalashnikov she carried.” Volk is a “Special Forces wunderkind” who loses a leg in combat after weathering five years of the “assault of rapists, skin-fillet artists, flesh-burning pyromaniacs, and other assorted torturers.” The former foes become squeezes and then a sort of Hart-to-Hart on amphetamines: boy/girl desperadoes. Guns for hire, they’re enlisted by rival Very Bad Guys. Their mission impossible is to break into the Hermitage, St. Petersburg’s ultra-secure treasure trove of big-name artworks. Under a canvas by the obscure Pierre Mignard, a stunner has been discovered—one of the 15 paintings actually done by Leonardo, the only artist—since the canonization of Dan Brown—of whom popular entertainment knows the existence. Volk/Valya have to nab it. Moonlighting from his day job of manufacturing porno, Volk constructs a head-spinningly elaborate game plan, requiring Valya’s “renting an ancient four-seat Moscvitch, two Lambretta scooters, and a skiff, buying secondhand clothes and scuba gear, and arranging drop points.” Predictable betrayals, sex scenes and violence ensue.
Lurid, if not original.