The Bear Comes Out of Hibernation
Monday, April 24, 2006
By Gerald Seymour
Overlook. 428 pp. $24.95
Gerald Seymour's powerful new spy novel is based on the premise that the Cold War is not over; it has simply gone underground. This is the fiercely held view of Rupert Mowbray, recently retired from British intelligence, who warns that East-West friendship and cooperation are an illusion and that Russian President Vladimir Putin has resumed nuclear testing even as he builds a police state to rival that of Stalin. Mowbray is a proud old Cold Warrior whose career peaked in 1998 when a Russian naval officer, Viktor Archenko, began sending the British valuable military secrets. But four years later, Russian counterintelligence agents are closing in on Archenko, and a defiant Mowbray organizes a rescue mission to save the spy whom he considers a hero.
His mission is controversial from the first. A young intelligence officer, Gabriel Locke, argues that Archenko is a spy who deserves no sympathy. But Mowbray convinces his superiors that honor and loyalty demand that they make every effort to rescue the Russian, who has risked his life for them. Mowbray assembles a ragtag team of over-the-hill commandos to carry out the assignment. Unfortunately, Archenko serves in the highly fortified, seemingly impregnable naval base at Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.
Seymour, the author of 17 previous novels, is widely admired for the quality of his writing and the subtlety of his characterizations. At its best, his work recalls that of John le Carre, Frederick Forsyth, Alan Furst and other masters of the spy thriller. In this novel, he moves effortlessly among a dozen or more important characters, all skillfully sketched.
Archenko, young and talented, became a spy not for money but to take revenge on a Russian government that had inflicted great pain on his family. His nemesis is a Russian army interrogator whose genius is his ability to convince his prey that they are friends -- and then, once he has a confession, to care not at all if torture or death awaits those he deceives. A ruthless Russian gangster figures in the plot, as does a British woman who works for Mowbray and has fallen in love with Archenko. Seymour makes Mowbray seem a worthy and romantic figure -- and then, as the rescue mission falters and many deaths are likely, he forces us to ask if he may not simply be an old fool.
The author lavishes attention on detail -- about people, about places, about weapons. He knows the worlds of spies and soldiers intimately, but the novel has problems, mostly near the end, during the final confrontation between the rescue team and the Russian defenders. Some plot details are unconvincing, and at times Seymour tries too hard to pump drama into an already dramatic story. But Seymour's strengths come through in the background he supplies, including a memorable scene in which a Russian general is entertaining a visitor in his Moscow office. He calls the visitor to the window and points out a very old man shuffling along on the street. He was, the general explains, Stalin's executioner during the purges of the 1930s and 1940s:
"For ten years he killed, always with a revolver. . . . No firing squads, just him. He was so close that he was spattered. Generals, professors, doctors, intellectuals, officials, they all knelt before him. I was told he stank of blood. He worked with two buckets beside him. One had eau-de-Cologne to hide the smell and the other was filled with vodka. All he stopped for on a busy day was to reload his pistol and to drink the vodka."
It's a bleak image in a novel that does little to romanticize the world of spies and soldiers. The Cold War rages on, the author tells us, and many other wars as well. Brave men die serving other men's fantasies, and there is no end to it. Seymour is a master of dark suspense, and this is a good place to discover him.