Wednesday, 28 April 2010

"Moscow Sting", Alex Dryden

In "The Usual Suspects" Kevin Spacey claims that the best trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.

I've often thought that in many ways the best trick the Russian Federation pulled was convincing the West that it won the Cold War.

Alex Dryden's "Moscow Sting" starts during the Russo-Georgian conflict of 2008, pitting disparate state and civilian intelligence organisations in the search for 'Anna', an on-the-run Russian agent, and the quest for revenge against the Russian sponsored murder of a British agent.  

It's a setting I find particularly interesting from a personal perspective. In the summer of 2008 I did a lot of work in Nizhnyy Novgorod, a city without the tourist cachet of Moscow or St Petersburg, but nonetheless an urbane cosmopolitan place at the confluence of the Oka and Volga rivers. Nizhnyy Novgorod is a lovely city, and I still have many friends there, but it was nonetheless an odd experience being there then, as the conflict between Russia and Georgia flared and aspects of international politics over which I had no control started to have an impact on ordinary work.

In many ways "Moscow Sting" tries to capture the froideur of that period, yet somehow there's something that doesn't feel right.

I started reading spy fiction back in the early 1980s and "Moscow Sting" reads and feels almost exactly like something from there. Despite some nods to notions of Russian oligarchs and private security companies, this deep down is a story about Russian versus Western intelligence agencies.

Some parts of the book work better than others. The European settings are convincing, in the way the US ones are less so. The plot doesn’t completely hang together, and there are elements that either need to be expanded or cut out, and the ending feels profoundly rushed.

There are some obvious nods to the death of Alexander Litvinenko throughout the book, but it’s not until late on that he’s mentioned by name. Tying him in earlier would have served to reinforce the overall real world believability of the book. This element of veracity is something that’s critical in a spy thriller, and too often Dryden misses what should be an open goal in establishing this. Right at the outset 'Adrian' or 'C' flies to Helsinki on a routine RAF flight in a twin-engined turbo prop. This just doesn't seem likely - what plane is this? and why is there a routine RAF flight to Helsinki? Had Dryden just left it as the scheduled BA flight then the purpose would have been served, and doubts wouldn't have been introduced to the reader's mind.

Another area where the writing jars is in its endless anachronistic references to the KGB. It’s not as though Dryden is unaware of the changed structure of the Russian intelligence community, he makes reference to the FSB and SVR, but it’s almost as though there’s an assumption that the reader can’t cope with the new complexities. This ushers in one of the most troubling aspects of the book,  the impression that this was a decent enough book written in the 1980s, and dusted off with a bit of polishing for a 21st century audience.

There's scope for a brilliant book to be written about 2008, the seeming renewal of the Cold War and the frost that entered Russo-Western relations, and the economic collapse, and for a while I thought this might be it. Sadly it's not. It's a workable spy thriller, but most of the time bumps along in a way that's all too clearly inferior to the admittedly stellar standard set by the likes of le Carre, only sometimes rising above the ordinary.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book as a review copy from Hodder Headline

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