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An understated, low-stakes spy yarn by the author of a dozen Superintendent Otani mysteries (The Body Wore Brocade, 1992, etc.). It's 1982, and new series character Ben Lazenby, a British Foreign Service cultural attach‚ in Hungary, is taking a leisurely road trip to Bucharest. His assignment: to chaperon two lorries carrying a million dollars' worth of British art back to Budapest. En route, Lazenby has a romantic dinner with Dr. Emma Jarvis, a visiting lecturer at Debrecen University, meets and turns down a prostitute, gives an old woman a lift, and provides occasional travelogue-style descriptions of the countryside. Meanwhile, unusually naive at age 39, he's befuddled by two gypsy children, ages ten and eight, who appear as if magically in cities along the way. Finally, in Bucharest, Lazenby meets a beautiful Finnish journalist who hops a ride to the border and offers sex in exchange for his smuggling a secret tape out of Romania. He refuses. Then one lorry vanishes near Budapest, and the Hungarian secret police and the KGB suddenly bumble their way into the affair as Lazenby becomes a puzzled bystander. Crafted more like a mystery than a thriller, Melville's tale leaves the important action offstage and conceals most of the plot relevance until the last few pages. The brief opening scene, oddly, reveals that Lazenby has become the target of two Eastern European security services, but the wimpy Lazenby is never a target, nor does he recover the lost lorry with its precious cargo. The Superintendent Otani series is made fascinating by layered Japanese cultural atmospherics, but the Melville faithful may find the author's newest lacking both in richness of detail and in plot.

Pub Date: Jan. 29th, 1996
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Severn House