THE RED FOX. By Anthony Hyde Knopf. 321 pp. $17.95.
THE RED FOX is something of a patchwork, stitched up of bits that can be marvelously entertaining, but which fail fully to coalesce; curiously, this thriller's lack of focus may well be the fault, not of author Anthony Hyde's inexperience (and certainly not of lack of talent), but rather of the genre's limitations, for Hyde attempts to bring to a conventional medium emotions and insights of a complexity uncommon in escapist fiction.
True, there are grounds on which to suspect inexperience, as Hyde's publishers stress that The Red Fox is a first novel. Perhaps this may explain the occasional creakiness of a plot turn, or a reliance on coincidence so great that even Robert Thorne, Hyde's protagonist, is moved to remark that it was a "million-to-one shot that I'd been sitting there, and a billion-to-one shot that (the KGB officer) hadn't seen me. It was enough to take your breath away." Such splotches, though, are so infrequent and minor in comparison to Hyde's vivid evocation of person and place, in this story of a search across Canada, the United States, France and even Russia, that it is impossible to believe that Hyde is not an experienced writer, well used to conveying the world in words.
Some of the cause may also be simple timing, since the book concerns secrets of Russian and Soviet history. Hyde's Thorne is an amateur Kremlinologist well-equipped to rummage about in the doings of such arcane figures as Georgi Dimitrov and Bukharin (whom a gremlin has rendered as "Bakunin"), both of whom are caught up in the secret which is the spine of Hyde's book, and Hyde's handling of Russia is sure and convincing. However, both because of certain details which are no longer true (such as that gasoline is no longer sold for cash, so that Thorne could not sneak out of Leningrad as described), and more significantly, because the nature of nationalism and the interagency rivalry between the KGB and the army's intelligence branch, the GRU, have both changed dramatically since Brezhnev's death, the Soviet Union which Hyde portrays as current is in fact history, and thus an obtrusive element in enjoying The Red Fox.
Yet The Red Fox is not primarily about Russia, nor is it entirely a thriller of plot. Hyde's book begins with an act of kindness, as Thorne agrees to help a former girl friend locate her missing father. Because the man is a wealthy fur merchant, the woman fears the worst; because she once agreed to marry Thorne, then mysteriously changed her mind, Thorne feels compelled beyond bounds of kindness to discover why the man has disappeared. Thorne equally is drawn on by the emptiness within himself which came from having watched his own father commit suicide, an act Thorne could neither explain nor forget. The Red Fox thus is a story of twin obsessions, with the nature of the woman whom Thorne loves without return, and with the nature of himself and his own history.
These obsessions are not, Thorne learns, as private as they might seem, for both the missing father, then Thorne's own father, prove to have connections with Soviet espionage. Worse, Thorne learns that a fortune, $12 million, has gone wandering, a fact which draws a rival from the Soviet intelligence system, a lethal shadow who haunts Thorne (while showing, it must be said, an obliging tendency to leave his victims alive enough for Thorne to interrogate too). Nor is the money enough; Hyde implies that it could be used to finance a Great Russian Putsch of a very nasty sort.
WHAT DISTINGUISHES The Red Fox from thrillers of lesser ambition, though, is that Hyde never allows these more public dangers to subordinate Thorne's private quest. What Thorne learns about himself is as important to the book as what he learns about history, making The Red Fox an unusually human and civilized novel. Hyde avoids the colossal (and usually silly) scope of the common thriller, just as he disdains the clinically-described brutality which infests so many modern books. His focus is always on Thorne as a man, his love for a particular woman, his need to balance an understanding of his father as a parent and as a person.
Unfortunately, such concerns seem too intimate for the genre, so Hyde ties them to something of a scale acceptably thrilling, or tries to. The result is a series of secrets, each discarded. America has no Fourth Man, so Thorne's discovery of prewar Soviet penetration of the State Department is just history; inflation is such that even $12 million seems slender motivation, particularly since Thorne will never control the money himself. Even the specter of Great Russian Nazism is pallid, unlikely and dated, so Hyde is forced into concocting an ultimate secret, that perhaps the last of the Romanovs was not murdered, that a legitimate claimant to the Russian throne may yet live.
It is this, both the intimation and the genre convention which demands that Hyde make it, which most seriously vitiates The Red Fox. Surely if 68 years of Soviet rule has accomplished anything, it is that whether or not the Romanov line survives means as little to the Soviet Union as it does to us that the House of Windsor continues to flourish. Paradoxically though, it is this weakness which also most highlights the strength of The Red Fox, and of Hyde, for what in a lesser book would seem ludicrous here seems only unnecessary, something unwisely added to enlarge the audience for what in fact is the story of a man coming to understand himself. Hyde writes so intelligently, so sensitively, of Thorne's growing awareness, of his love for the woman who refused him, for the father who failed him, that one cannot help but rejoice at this debut, while hoping too that The Red Fox will give Hyde the audacity to shrug off genre, and follow his instincts into the less contrived but equally thrilling arena of real human relationships, intelligently and perceptively described.