“He just didn’t see the point of making up new terms, as if civilisation were evolving, as if history were linear, instead of repeating itself over and over.”
Sally McGrane’s second spy novel takes the reader inside the underbelly of Odesa, a port city on the Black Sea in southern Ukraine that was once the Russian Empire’s glittering third capital. Given recent media reporting on the war taking place in this country, it is an eye opening window into a place that is clearly not the forward thinking democracy those of us in the privileged west are currently being encouraged to believe. In this account corruption is rife, and any attempts to stamp it out are met with violence from those who milk the system. While threats from Russia rumble in the background, there are still plenty of citizens who align themselves with this former overlord turned aggressor.
The story being told centres around Max Rushmore, an ex-CIA man now working on assignments as a sort of freelancer. He travels to Odesa to attend a conference, along with a number of his former colleagues. While there, he is distracted by strange occurrences he starts to hear about on the grapevine. Drawn to work out what is going on he encounters a varied cast of characters trying to make money or retain ill-gotten power by dubious means.
The reader is introduced to: The King, a one-eyed old man who is not as doddery as he first appears; The Lion, a recently released convict with a drug habit; Rodion, a scientist working on a long hidden secret; Felix, an entrepreneur with dreams beyond his abilities; Sima, a young woman whose role appears to be the love interest; a colony of cats that get everywhere, listening in. Alongside these characters are politicians, policemen, and an eager young man Max uses to cover his increasing absences from the conference his boss believes he is documenting.
While the mafia style gangs, brothel keepers and drug addicts go about their iniquitous business, there exist tourists enjoying the local beaches. Their ability to ignore what is going on around them brings across how facile pleasure seekers can be. Many of the local population live in buildings liable to collapse into the catacombs that run underneath the city. Meanwhile apartment blocks lie empty, thrown up in haste by foreign developers eager to cash in on tax breaks – money laundering.
The unfolding mystery is convoluted but does come together by the end. The evident decay and endemic violence make Odesa sound a terrible place. Few of the characters featured are likable. When deaths occur it is hard to feel sympathy. Even the cats act in gangs and murder their own to retain advantage – an interesting addition to what is billed as a spy thriller but one that elicits little affection for the creatures.
The pace is slow for a thriller but there are nuggets of interest. The science behind the poor axolotls showed how narcissistic humans can be. Max treats his wife terribly. He must have a strong skull given the number of knocks it receives from which he recovers surprisingly quickly. Of course, such occurrences are not unusual in the genre. The hero is often both troubled and flawed yet has to live through hardships if he is to fight another day.
The mostly short chapters helped retain engagement. The writing is fluid with a good number of original twists. It took some time to work out who was who, and to join the dots as threads were woven together. The author trusts that the reader will keep up without being spoon fed, that they will spot the cues without necessarily guessing where they lead. The ending is satisfying as it is not too cloying, neat but with an edge of ambiguity.
A thriller for the literary minded rather than a page turner. A grim reminder of how corruption defiles all in the vicinity.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, V&Q Books.