The turmoil of the Soviet Union’s last days under Gorbachev forms the setting for this entertaining thriller.
At the center of the baroque conspiracy driving the plot is Vasiliy Karpov, a cold-blooded but business-savvy KGB general with a grand scheme to position Russia for post-Communist dominance of the global economy by stealing cutting-edge technologies from America. His secret weapon is the Peitho pill, a poison capsule implanted in the buttocks of its unwitting victims and activated by remote control with a radio signal. Vasiliy has his smarmily sociopathic son Victor blackmail American researchers by implanting the pill in a few of their family members–one to kill in front of their eyes for demonstration purposes, the other as a permanent hostage to ensure ongoing participation in industrial espionage. When his aerospace-engineer brother turns up dead, private eye and ex-CIA agent Alex Ferris follows clues to Siberia–aptly rendered in dingy, late-Communist atmospherics–and finds himself entangled with Yarik, a massive KGB hit-man with a massive appetite for carnage, and Anna, a beautiful Russian doctor who is fending off Vasiliy’s advances. The byzantine conspiracy occasionally sags under its own weight, and makes the conspirators–who constantly spout Western business-speak about â€œcore competencies,” etc.–look curiously obtuse regarding the realities of New Economy villainy. The technologies they pick to steal–improved airplane engines, photo-voltaic bricks, computer chips that were super-fast in 1990–seem innocuous; Vasiliy would have done better investing in a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. Fortunately, Tigner propels the narrative with vigorous prose and a succession of exciting set pieces in which Alex shows off his spy craft and special-ops lore as he infiltrates KGB bastions and battles Yarik across the trackless taiga. Alex deploys a nice balance of cool calculation and wing-and-a-prayer improvisation, and his ruthless adversaries retain a note of humanity.
Well-paced action, appealing characters and snappy writing compensate for a semi-preposterous plot.