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It’s a Mystery: “He’s the gray cardinal of the Kremlin”

By (February 1, 2012) No Comment

The Silent Oligarch

By Chris Morgan Jones
The Penguin Press, 2012

As we now know, glasnost did not, as feared in some circles, spell the end of spy fiction.

Indeed, the most enduring feature of the spy novel is its flexibility to deal with political change. No matter what shape the world is in people will continue to spy on each other. As to the question of whether the human spy is redundant in the face of the vast technological developments in espionage, the answer is absolutely not. The spymaster has to be a human being, one who can analyze the material received and even spot the disinformation, and only the human spy can find out the real motives behind certain people’s actions, or learn what is inside their minds.

There is a lovely quote from the late John Bingham (Lord Clanmorris), who wrote many spy novels between 1952 and 1982, and also spied (he worked for a quarter of a century in various branches of the British Security Services). To wit: “Bugs can’t tell you who is sleeping with whom, who is jealous of his superiors and fed up with his job—and who is drinking.”

As research reveals, Bingham was discreet about his intelligence experience, but it is alleged that some clues can be found in the novels of John le Carré, who worked with Bingham in the early 1960’s and became a friend. Lady Clanmorris believed that her husband was the model for George Smiley. Oddly enough, in Bingham’s obituary in the Daily Telegraph in 1988, it says that he told friends he disliked the cynicism of le Carré’s approach and attributed more honorable motives to his secret agents. Le Carré has said he never forgot what he learned in real life in MI5 and MI6 and quite likely (in lieu of a rap on the knuckles for his defection) would characterize Bingham as he did Smiley in Call for the Dead:

It’s an old illness you suffer from, Mr. Smiley and I have seen many victims of it. The mind becomes separated from the body; it thinks without reality, rules a paper kingdom and devises without emotion the ruin of its paper victims.

Which, believe it or not, brings us to the 21st century, The Silent Oligarch, and the world of corporate espionage—a world where Smiley’s “old illness” is alive and well in an updated form. The paper kingdom has been exchanged for one slick with oil.

The central player in The Silent Oligarch is Ben Webster. As an idealistic young journalist, he traveled to Kazakhstan in 1999 with a cutting-edge and very controversial investigative reporter, Inessa. There, Inessa is brutally murdered and Ben is booted back to Russia, lucky to be alive. There was an arrest, but Webster knows her true killer has never been found. We move to 2009. Webster is now the chief snoop in a London corporate intelligence firm Ikertu:

What Ikertu did best, and liked to do to the exclusion of all else when times were good, was contentious work…. They fought for their clients. They fought to recover money, to redeem reputations and dismantle them, to expose corruption, to overtake the competition, to right wrongs and sometimes to cover them up. Most of the time they worked for the right side.

A Greek businessman, Aristotle Tourna, hires the firm to get the goods on a Kremlin functionary, Konstantin Malin. Tourna believes he has been grievously wronged by Malin:

He had been away when the call came in but Webster thought he knew what Tourna wanted…. His reputation needed help. Tourna would ask him to polish his name; to run the rule over him and find nothing wrong.

Tourna wants more:

What I want from you is the downfall of Konstantin Malin…. The man is a crook. He’s meant to be the great strategist. The grand vizier, the man who made Russia powerful again. But all he cares about is his empire, and his money. He’s a fat crook, and he doesn’t deserve any of it. I want him gone.

Webster is eager to take on the job because one of his sources points to Malin as complicit in Inessa’s death.

It occurred to him that he would take this on for no money at all. This was the sort of case he had signed up for: the sort that makes a difference…. Malin. Quite a prize.

More to Ikertu’s mission, as Webster’s source reveals, deep in the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and posing as a nondescript bureaucrat, is Konstantin Malin. He draws a nominal government salary but from his shabby office controls half the nation’s oil industry, making him one of the wealthiest and most feared men in Russia:

He’s been in the ministry for longer than anyone else. He runs it…. Do you know how much gas Russia’s got? A fifth of the lot. Some days it produces more oil than Saudi. You look at how output‘s gone up since Yeltsin went…. That’s Kremlin pressure.  And your friend is at the heart of it. He’s in the Kremlin directing policy and in the ministry enforcing it…. And Malin has a crack regiment of brutal old spooks.

Because Malin is definitely the eminence grise, Tourna is suing Malin’s hapless front man, Richard Lock. Bound to Malin by marriage, complacency and greed, Lock takes the money Malin has siphoned from the state, launders it abroad and invests it back in Russia in a secret business empire. As Webster tells his partner at Ikertu:

I know Lock. Or know of him. There’s a joke in Moscow: why did Malin lose all his money? Because he was Locked up…. It’s a pun. Lock means sucker. …He’s Malin’s public face.

When push comes to shove, Lock claims to know little about Malin’s true affairs—what’s a front man for?

I don’t know enough. Never have…. To hurt Malin you need to show he’s a criminal…. I can’t prove it. I just know that he’s a rich Russian and I own things for him…someone has to own everything or be seen to…. All carefully scripted to within an inch of being meaningless.

If Malin is Russia’s secret oligarch, Lock is Malin’s dummy oligarch.

As Webster pulls back the layers of Malin’s shell companies and criminal networks, Malin begins to question his trust in his increasingly exposed front man. What little Lock knows is definitely too much. People begin to die around him. He is terrified. For the first time he wants to escape his position and flee Russia:

In Russia there are no accidents…. In the world of paranoia, paranoia itself can be your friend as well as your enemy.

This is big-time cat and mouse. In the world of international intrigue, shell game on.

The author, Chris Morgan Jones, worked for a large private intelligence business. His expertise: Russian corporate wrongdoing. His debut is a beautifully written, razor-sharp insider’s view of post-Soviet iniquity. Jones shows us a world where the offspring of the Moscow rich get a Ferrari as a birthday present. A world where oligarchs, these shadowy elite powerbrokers, dine in obscenely expensive “mistress’s restaurants” with girls young enough to be their daughters, arm candy, whose talents do not run to conversation. They drink vintage Dom Perignon at $2,500 a bottle while glued to their cell phones casually overseeing an assassination.

As Jones reveals, Putin’s Russia flaunts its old-style power and arrogance with complete immunity. The certain is what’s most uncertain, the close most distant, the friend the most likely enemy. Churchill’s observation that “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” is chillingly relevant.  The Silent Oligarch is a knockout.

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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