Russian spies hatch convoluted plots for ill-conceived reasons in this murky espionage yarn.
Red’s (Deception License, 2019) potboiler centers on Galina Ivanova, a Russian agent who longs to quit spying and have a baby. First, though, she honeytraps a U.S. senator’s horny son into having anal sex with her, by which contrivance she administers a poison that will kill him unless he flies to Moscow for the antidote. The Kremlin promptly takes him hostage. Galina then turns to her own private vendetta against Doruk, a Turkish intelligence officer and ex-lover who got her to betray Russia in a way that is never clarified. She considers shooting him. She rejects that method of revenge in favor of a byzantine plan to: 1) assist a Russian politician in clearing his name of treason allegations by 2) concocting a false charge of child molestation against him so he can be exonerated of it while 3) getting pregnant by the politician, before 4) having sex with Doruk, sending him pregnancy photos and implying the baby is his. Another subplot explores Doruk’s plan to put a bug in a target’s house by replacing all the pens at his bank branch with bugged pens in hopes that he will absentmindedly take one home.
The feverish machinations undertaken by Red’s characters are certainly imaginative and even engrossing, and there are intricate scenes of tradecraft and neurolinguistic programming, which add psychological depth to some scenes. (To gain Galina’s confidence, Inga offers a long, Dostoyevskian backstory of how her narcissistic mother pushed her to become a concert pianist and then sabotaged her career.) But the supercomplex narrative may leave readers feeling like simpler expedients are available to achieve the characters’ ends or that the ends themselves do not merit so many sojourns down blind alleys. (In one bizarre scene, Galina sends her friend Olga hundreds of miles away to Baku to buy a book with a quote that Galina likes but doesn’t tell Olga which book to buy because she doesn’t remember the quote or the book’s title or author, merely the bookshop where she saw it; Olga dutifully returns with books but not the right one.) The novel’s ill-edited prose is often baffling, especially when sex is discussed. (“Galina was able to infect Paul with the poison through bleeding resulting from the deformation in the anal relationship.”) Red sticks lots of aphorisms into the text from writers as far afield as Nietzsche, Kafka, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Janis Joplin, but they seldom illuminate the novel’s themes. For example, the author quotes Einstein, saying, “You have to learn the rules of the game and then to play better than anyone,” which, if authentic, would be the most vacuous truism the physicist ever uttered. The result reads like a le Carré novel merged with Bartlett’s, as rewritten by Jerry Springer and Google translated into Russian and back. Many readers will tire of this game well before the novel stops.
An ungainly mishmash of stilted writing and inexplicable intrigues.