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It’s A Mystery: Mum’s Always The Word

By (November 1, 2009) No Comment

Red to Black

By Alex Dryden
Ecco: Harper Collins, 2009

The stage is set for an old fashioned story of star-crossed lovers whose race against time is as old as time itself. But the players are anything but old fashioned, and the setting is the “new Russia” of Vladimir Putin, so the time-honored stage conventions give way to a thoroughly modern spy thriller with fear-induced duplicity at its center. Anna, the narrator throughout Alex Dryden’s Red to Black, is the youngest female colonel in the KGB. Her lover Finn is an MI6 agent in the guise of an amiable trade secretary at the British Embassy in Moscow:

I met Finn for the first time back in January 1999. Our meeting had been at the Baltschug Hotel, across the Moskva River from the Kremlin. The hotel was to remain a place of good memories for us throughout Finn’s residency in Moscow. As he put it, rather unnecessarily, ‘It was the venue for our first official fuck, Rabbit (his nickname for me), endorsed by Her Majesty and the KGB.’ In bed, he said, ‘You’re completely wasted as a colonel, you know. You’re the best honey trap there ever was.’

Thus, from the beginning, they know each other as two spies who speak the language of lies. Seduction of the other is their first assignment. Finn has a mole in the Kremlin, “So far on the inside that he practically shits in Putin’s bathroom.” And Anna’s masters have declared, “You can make history, perhaps, if you find this insider who will do anything, it seems, to damage Russia.” They are two highly-trained, attractive people without illusions. They both have their orders—but as if on cue, from their respective sides, they fall in love. Alas, really in love. On New Year’s Eve, when Putin comes to power, Finn and Anna are in her Nana’s dacha. All around them, as the news of Putin’s ascendancy breaks, they can hear the limos from the surrounding dachas starting up in the snow:

‘Everyone now goes to Moscow,’ Nana remarks. ‘To pay homage to Yeltsin’s heir.’

But Finn and Anna decide to stay put for that night. Nana, the quintessential babushka, mockingly proposes a toast to Putin. And they make love with the ears of the KGB listening. At the dawn of the new millennium, these adversaries find themselves brought together by an unexpected bond that becomes the only truth they can trust. While in another part of the countryside where there are no limos, many Russians still sleep in their meager huts under a picture of Stalin.

By the time of his election victory in March, Putin had already begun to build up a hierarchy of power that harked back to Peter the Great. To Putin:

He who controls history, controls the future.

Finn and Anna are firmly ensconced in what they called their fiction, their double lives. Finn’s obsession is with the Plan, Putin’s blueprint for the takeover of the world, yes, the world. This intelligence comes from Finn’s mole, codename Mikhail, real name and credentials, for now, Finn’s secret—much to Anna’s chagrin.

It is worth noting that pillow talk as a betrayer of secrets, has a long tradition in spy novels. More often than not, it is the deliberate distortions therein that are pivotal to the plot. It is also a well known fact that the oath of secrecy is not to the Agency as such but to your colleagues. Any spy worth his phony passport is a master of mendacity. Maugham’s Ashenden, the anti-hero of his 1928 novel, Ashenden; or, The British Agent, has an official existence as orderly and monotonous as a City Clerk’s. Mum’s always his word. He visits the marketplace on market-day to get any messages from the butter-woman (she being a triumph of naiveté). Ashenden is often seen as the precursor of realistic Cold War spy fiction. At any rate, Finn is in good company. Graham Greene uses humor to deflect any of his protagonist’s untruths. Eric Ambler’s operatives are generally ordinary, cautious people. Len Deighton’s wisecracking spook with-no-name thinks women are good for one thing and it certainly isn’t conversation. OO7’s pillow talk is a pack of lies. Le Carré’s George Smiley is the world class champion of the close-mouthed (much to the chagrin of his beloved Ann). Putin probably doesn’t have a pillow.

Summoned—you might say shanghaied—back to the London inner sanctum of his masters, Finn lays out the Plan of Vladimir Putin, in all its mindboggling greed and power-hungry malevolence: a Plan that he believes represents an existential threat to freedom in all of Europe. Adrian, his recruiter and the head of the Moscow desk, drops his own bombshell:

Adrian, as Finn describes him, has the jolly ruddiness of the Laughing Cavalier…. Finn says Adrian wears red ties to dampen the glow of his well-lunched face…. But, so easy to forget, Adrian is also completely ruthless…with a mind as sharp as a mussel shell.

…’I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Finn,’ Adrian says quietly. ‘It’s come as quite a blow….I’m afraid Mikhail was a fraud. Has been all along, I’m sorry to say…the big stuff which we—which you too, I know, Finn—set such store by, all this turns out to be the fruits of so much KGB inter-clan warfare and, to be honest, it doesn’t take much light to be shone on it to reveal the flaws.’

Adrian pauses for his peroration.

‘I’m afraid Mikhail allowed this internecine intrigue in the KGB to cloud his judgment…this part of Mikhail’s intelligence—the crucial part—is, to coin a phrase, absolutely useless.’

There is much more to Adrian’s destruction of Finn’s seven dangerous years of work and its conclusion. But the bottom line is that:

He knows that he is being fed a lie and Adrian knows he knows.

Finn is forced to go rogue, and Anna must play a dangerous double agent’s game with her superiors to protect them both. They run up against a chilling wall of silence, everywhere the silence of the sinister. Their underground path leads more to treachery than truth. There are more questions than answers. As Anna says:

We had the malevolence of others, with their huge forces, arrayed against us, but it was we, ultimately, who allowed their hostility to disrupt the peace we might have found.

The author who calls himself Alex Dryden, is a seasoned British writer and journalist, well versed in Russian security matters. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Dryden watched the statues of Lenin fall across the former Soviet Union. Since then he has charted the false dawn of democracy in Russia as the country has transformed into the world’s most powerful secret state. Working as a freelancer in order to maintain autonomy, he says: “Intelligence work was the consistent underlying factor behind my presence there.” His credentials make us wonder when Putin began to execute the Plan. And his revelations about the real Mikhail, whose cover has never been blown, adds a whole other dimension to Kremlin intrigue that should terrify us all.

Photo by Lenny Foster

He admits, “A pseudonym won’t protect anyone against a concerted effort, but it at least offers limited protection. Working on the spot as the Soviet Union collapsed and for more than fifteen years afterwards, I knew that much of the information that came to me in that time was explosive, dangerous to possess and would make an excellent basis for a nonfiction account of modern Russia.” An even more hardnosed reality is that more than 200 human rights workers, journalists and politicians have been murdered or disappeared since 1998 when Putin became head of the KGB. And that’s what’s known as an “official” count. So Alex Dryden chose “the reality of fiction.” It’s a nice phrase to describe a novel that tells us everything we wanted to know about Putin’s Russia, but were afraid to ask.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.

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