Monday, July 28, 2008

The new Cold War

Is the "tired of the life, spy in semi-retirement dragged out for one more mission" genre, well, tired? Judging by Daniel Silva's latest entry into the life of Israeli superspy Gabriel Allon, his eighth in this particular series, the answer according to at least one author is no. Not surprisingly perhaps given that the post-September 11 era has revitalized the genre; instead of the Soviet Bloc, the west's undercover heroes can grapple enemies from other of the globe's hotspots.

Except that Moscow Rules brings us back to the future with a villain no stranger to those who grew up with Cold War era spy novels. Allon's mission, which he has little choice but to accept, is to investigate Ivan Kharkov, a former KGB colonel who has built a fortune thanks to his connections. While Kharkov's public face is that of a billionaire built on crafty, if somewhat shady, investments, those in the know are aware that much of that fortune is actually the result of selling weapons to whoever is willing to pay.

Kharkov's latest venture is what has prompted the un-retirement of the newly married Allon. Dragged from an Italian estate where he was restoring art for the Vatican, Allon is told that the Russian plans to sell a sophisticated weapons system – codenamed Igla, Russian for "needle" – to al-Qaida. He must determine when and where the deal will take place in order to foil what will be future global attacks even more deadly than what took place on September 11, 2001.

With the stakes as high as they are, it's not surprise that Kharkov's network will do whatever it takes to protect the deal. Journalists who discover the truth are murdered and Allon himself finds out that elements of the Russian establishment are willing to do what it takes to protect one of their own, which includes a stay in the Lubyanka prison. Fortunately, Allon discovers a way to penetrate Kharkov's circle, through his art-collecting wife Elena.

From there the story rarely lets off the throttle. Aided not only by the Israeli secret service, but also those of the U.S., Britain and France, Allon travels across Europe in his effort to discover the details of the weapons deal. With money no object and abilities that, thanks to friends in the Russian government and intelligence services, are nearly as formidable as the ones Allon's allies bring to bear, the Russian mafia and Kharkov stop at nothing in their attempts to end his mission.

While Moscow Rules is engaging, it is somewhat hobbled by a deus ex machina twist in the later third of the book that stretches the credibility of even the spy genre. While it doesn't take the reader completely out of the story – at least not for long – it is an event which isn't foreshadowed before it occurs and only seems to do so in order to rescue Allon from the predicament he finds himself in. It is a plot twist, though relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, which detracts from what Silva was able to create with his latest effort.

That said, Moscow Rules is an imminently engaging read which is firmly grounded in today's political events. Though it is escapist fiction, it will also hopefully inform the reader about the reality of the flow of arms and expertise from Russia to the Middle East. Perceived American weakness and a torrent of oil money have revitalized a Russia apparently determined to revisit its past and while Moscow Rules is the latest in the series of spies coming out of retirement, it is hardly a tired or irrelevant effort. ESR

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada

By Steven Martinovich
web posted July 28, 2008