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It’s a Mystery: “Delat’ iz mukhi slona, don’t make an elephant out of a fly”

By (June 1, 2015) No Comment

Palace of Treasonpalaceoftreason
By Jason Matthews
Scribner, 2015

Anatomy of Evil
By Will Thomas
Minotaur, 2015

The two principals from former CIA operative Jason Matthews’ dazzling debut novel, Red Sparrow (2013), are back. Palace of Treason (the title refers to the Kremlin) continues the treacherous game of espionage played out ceaselessly by Dominika Egorova and Nathaniel ‘Nate” Nash. The beautiful former ballerina is now a captain in the SVR, the Russian foreign intelligence service known as the Center. She’s also a double agent, code name DIVA, recruited by the CIA’s wunderkind Nash, her handler and lover whom she calls Neyt.

Domenika was born a synesthete, with a brain wired to see colored auras around people and thereby read passion, treachery, fear, or deception. She’s also a graduate of the Sparrow School, the secret sexpionage academy that trained women in the art of seduction. (I can’t resist noting that one of her many talents is sizing up a man’s “courting tackle.”) She’s the “supermole,” hell-bent on undermining both the mephitic atmosphere of the SVR and the thuggish President Putin even as he pulls her into his corrupt inner circle of oligarchs, crooks, and ruffians.

Her nemesis and boss is Alexei Ivanovich Zyuganov, chief of Russia’s counterintelligence Department of the Service—line KR. He’s a toxic dwarf, just over five feet, with the dim intuition of a sociopathic paranoid:

He worshipped Putin like an Aztec worships the sun…He started his own venomous career during the precursor KGB years as an interrogator in the Lubyanka cellars…. One of only two men she had ever known who showed not color but black foils of evil. She guessed he betrayed without conscience, and would in turn expect and watch her betrayal. She knew he would consider Putin’s heavy-lidded attention to her a serious threat as if she were stalking him with a knife.

Meanwhile at the Athens station, Nate has bagged a new mole, Lt. Gen. Mikhail Solovyov—a former biggie in Russia’s military intelligence service GRU and now a disillusioned defector. (If you don’t like initials, you shouldn’t read spy novels.) Once Headquarters confirms he’s the real deal—his “intel so far is giving the air force wet dreams”—he’s given the code name LYRIC. Nate’s return to the Athens station has reunited him with Marty Gable and Tom Forsyth, his brilliant, gently derisive superiors who share a comradely affection and watch each other’s backs no matter what.

At the moment, in addition to LYRIC, the back they are most concerned with is Domenika’s. She’s been out of contact and they are all eagerly awaiting word from her. She’s busy assiduously tracking an Iranian nuclear expert, Parvis Jamshidi. He’s a pivotal part of Putin’s plan to win favor with Tehran by circumventing international sanctions and providing embargoed technology to Iran’s nuclear program. Domenika has her own agenda to subvert Putin’s plot and cripple Iran’s nuclear facility. The first step took place in Vienna where she orchestrated a “chance” encounter between Jamshidi and a very talented Sparrow from her past. After a night with her, all secretly taped, “Jamshidi was reeled in as surely as a record-book Volga carp that is prehooked to President Putin’s fishing line.”

Now she’s back in Vienna, with a briefcase of Center-drafted nuclear requirements for a debriefing with Jamshidi on his country’s nuclear program. He agreed to this after having been shown a certain video of himself. The upcoming debriefing triggers her recontact with the CIA. This sparks what she really wants, reconnecting, as it were, with Nate. At their “reunion” Nate is invited to attend the debriefing disguised as an SVR Line X nuclear analyst. Gable’s first response: “Jesus wept.” It’s the CIA’s favorite phrase when cowed, humbled or amazed.

Gable later said he had never heard of such an operational gambit: DIVA, a recruited Russian agent, proposing that Nate, her CIA handler, impersonate a Russian nuclear analyst from line KR and together meet DIVA’s unilateral Iranian source. If they could pull it off, CIA would essentially get a secret drop copy of all the intelligence generated by the case that was being sent to the Center in Moscow, a priceless look inside the Iranian program.

What they do not tell Dominika is that they would begin examining their own covert-action possibilities to sabotage the Russian deal with Iran. It’s one of many hidden agendas that propels Palace of Treason. The spooks and their counterparts navigate a netherworld of ugly power struggles where no one is safe. Treachery trumps loyalty. Every character has a pocketful of secrets. The plethora of twists are mind-boggling! There are a ton of delicious “insider” tidbits. Dominika’s single-shot lipstick gun, effective as far as two meters, was first developed on Stalin’s orders in 1951 to shoot an East German traitor in Berlin. Dominika and Putin have a delicately orchestrated bedroom scene that defies description.

Matthews conveys the clandestine environment of espionage with a heart-stopping intensity that you know is as authentic as it is chilling. He has given us an intricate, beautifully written, complex spy novel with an ironic ending worthy of Chekhov.

anatomy of evilThe atmosphere of Victorian London and Scotland Yard in Will Thomas’s Anatomy of Evil are not as far removed from the Kremlin as you might think. The internecine politics of the Yard are akin to Palace intrigue and the murder and madness in the streets of London are almost as frightening as any schemes hatched in the corridors of the SVR or Langley.

Anatomy of Evil, the seventh in the series, begins on a September night in 1888 when Cyrus Barker, England’s premier private enquiry agent, and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn receive a distinguished visitor. Barker and Llewelyn are Thomas’s stand-ins for Holmes and Watson, who just might be their neighbors. Their visitor is Robert Anderson, an old friend and head of Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Department the CID. Anderson, known as England’s “spymaster general,” is leaving for Switzerland on doctor’s orders. The horrific murders of two prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of London are turning the city upside down, with tremendous pressure being brought to bear on Scotland Yard and the government itself. Queen Victoria is reportedly “beside herself on the matter.” Barker is to be named temporary envoy to the Royal family, “liaise with the Queen’s secretary,” and a member of Scotland Yard’s team as Anderson’s assistant. It’s a tricky assignment for a man the London Underworld knows as Push who has solved some of the most consequential cases in recent history. As Llewelyn, who is named special constable, says in a heated exchange with the Yard’s big boys:

“He is relentless. Once he starts a case, he won’t give it up until it is finished. Once begun, he will go at it with all he has, tooth and nail, never backing down never compromising his principles, barely eating and sleeping, giving all that he can until the client is satisfied. No one can threaten him away, cajole him, trick him, or beat him. And he doesn’t do it for the money, I can attest to that…. He cares about this city…and even cares that women of a low reputation cannot walk the streets without being cut up like cadavers.”

Against Llewelyn’s better judgment, Barker shuts his agency doors. They vacate the wealthy Barker’s comfortable home, and move into a room in Whitechapel. Soon they are ankle deep in the investigation of what Barker, among others, is calling The Whitechapel Murders. Then the Yard receives a note forwarded by the Central News Agency that begins “Dear Boss, I keep on hearing that the police have caught me…the next job I do I shall clip the lady’s ears off…My knife’s so nice and sharp I want to get to work right away if I get a chance.” And is signed “Good luck. Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.” It was thought to be a hoax, until the next victim had her ear cut off. Almost instantly, the name became synonymous with the crime and infamous.

Among the rumors surfacing about the Ripper’s identity, one that spread like wildfire asserted that a member of the royal family is responsible for the murders. It leads the pair to the Drake Club, a male brothel the Duke of Clarence, the son of Prince Albert the royal heir, is said to frequent. The proprietor is called the Countess. He is a confidante of Barker’s and ever so discreetly gives the Duke an alibi.

As tensions escalate, the Yard is stymied and rife with infighting just as they were during the real-life search for the Ripper. The resolution involves a person whose name was one of many bruited about at the time. It’s ambiguous, at best.

This leads me to wonder, as many have before me, if the real Ripper would have been caught if Sherlock Holmes had been on the case. Speculation has it he would have focused not only on the murders themselves but on why they stopped. Elementary!

It’s worth noting as, I say above, that stories and films abound in which Sherlock Holmes takes on Jack the Ripper Two of fiction’s best: Ellery Queen’s A Study in Terror (1965) and Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978). In addition to a film version of Queen’s story, there is Murder by Decree, starring Christopher Plummer as Holmes and James Mason as Watson.

As for the Ripper himself, where to begin? Perhaps with the story, The Lodger, by Marie Belloc Lowndes, published in 1911 and made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock. It was the director’s first commercial success, but then the story of the Ripper and the British filmmaker go together like caviar and champagne. Robert Bloch wrote a marvelous short story called Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper published in Weird Tales (1943). Novels include: A Feast Unknown by Philip Jose Farmer (1969), The Killer by Colin Wilson (1970), White Chapel, Scarlet Tracings, by Ian Sinclair (1987), and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd (1994). One other noteworthy film on the subject is The Ruling Class, which starred Peter O’Toole as a deranged earl who believes he is Jack the Ripper. Television got into the Ripper story often, the best being the miniseries Jack the Ripper starring Michael Caine as Inspector Abberline, one of the real-life investigators. I doubt there will be any let-up in fascination with this unknown killer.

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.