An intelligence operative becomes the unwitting pawn of an American agency seeking vital information on a potential terrorist in this debut thriller.
The Executive Covert Agency is focused on Mihai Cuza, a dangerous man planning to discredit the Romanian government. As this likely entails terrorist activity, the ECA has an agent close to Cuza. The spy manages to send the agency a list of 15 towns around the world, each home to a nuclear power plant. Cuza is surely plotting something nefarious, but ECA agent Nikolai Ivanovich “Kolya” Petrov discovers a more immediate concern. As Cuza has unmasked several agents, there must be a leak, which Kolya narrows down to one of three people on the Intelligence Committee. ECA head Margaret Bradford wants to identify the mole but also has another scheme in the works: tricking Cuza into downloading a Trojan horse on his seemingly unhackable computer. She sends an oblivious Kolya on a standard mission, hoping that Cuza will kidnap the agent and coerce him into accessing ECA’s site (where a Trojan horse awaits). As Kolya will likely resist torture, Bradford ensures the mole somehow learns about the agent’s lawyer girlfriend, Alex Feinstein, whom Cuza subsequently abducts to use as leverage. Jonathan Egan, Kolya’s friend and frequent ECA partner, teams up with others to find his fellow agent despite an early report that Kolya has died. As Jonathan and Kolya gradually realize that Bradford has deliberately arranged the abductions, they contemplate revenge—although making sure Kolya and Alex survive their predicaments comes first.
The bulk of Manning’s espionage tale, which shifts between various perspectives, centers on individuals searching for Kolya or keeping him captive. As such, the action is minimal but striking: Kolya does not make an easy target for kidnappers, and Alex proves more than capable when it appears escape is viable. Readers will sympathize with Kolya, especially since Bradford puts him in harm’s way even after acknowledging he’s one of ECA’s best agents. Moreover, the Russian Jewish immigrant is a skilled jazz pianist who distracts himself from his harrowing experience by playing musical pieces in his head. The torture Kolya endures is unsurprisingly violent but never excessive or exceedingly graphic. Still, Cuza’s preferred method of homicide is particularly cruel and brutal. Manning thankfully describes it only once, and subsequent mentions of the act are enough to rack up the tension, as it may befall the protagonist. The story’s spies and villains are appropriately complex and unpredictable. Bradford, for example, isn’t the only one at ECA who betrays Kolya, and some aligned with Cuza don’t necessarily agree with his plan to torture the agent into submission. Some readers may question certain plot points, including that it seems every character is aware of ECA, “an agency that few knew existed,” as well as flawed technological jargon (for example, software downloaded to a computer rather than uploaded). But these are relatively minor stumbles in an otherwise bracing narrative. Though this could easily be a stand-alone novel, the engaging volume is the start of a series.
A remarkable tale that makes espionage rousing, demanding, and occasionally terrifying.