"Solo Run" starts off with a bang. The bang in question is provided by a high-powered rifle. A sniper uses it to kill a Czech who has just completed a rendezvous at the West German border, where he has passed on a report of a secret conference to be held shortly in Prague. This snippet, along with news of the agent's abrupt demise, is quickly related to West German intelligence, where minds more devious than mine hatch their terrible plans. And we're off and running.
Or walking, really, because this third novel by a former German journalist and publisher is rather deliberate in its pace. Herlin is at least as concerned with his characters as with their machinations, and he has assembled a good cast.
C, the legendary head of an intelligence operation that survived the Second World War virtually intact, sees a great opportunity in this secret conference. (I kept wishing C had a name instead of an initial; one is inevitably reminded of M, James Bond's old boss.) If he can slip a mole into Prague, and if he can confirm the rift stirring in East Germany and indeed throughout the Eastern Bloc, he can steal a march on Zentner. Zentner, a former colleague of C's, turned East instead of West when he lost a power struggle to C. Ever since, C has felt about Zentner the way Cato felt about Carthage.
Heiner Carow, one of C's spymasters, has a couple concerns of his own. He wants to replace C if the old man ever retires, wants to safeguard any agent he places behind enemy lines, and, most of all, he wants to avoid ever openly expressing an emotion. Carow left his wife a while back, then returned to her when the alternative was resigning from the service. Carow has a mistress who's never available when he wants her, a daughter with whom he doesn't communicate well and an old dog, a pointer with skin cancer, that he can't quite bring himself to put down.
Martin is the agent selected for infiltration, while Carow is to serve as his control. Martin is not Carow's first choice, but C forces him on Carow. Martin has been away from the business for six years; before his separation he served several years in prison behind the Iron Curtain, and since his release he has been skin-diving in Spain and having meaningless affairs while pining for the girl he left behind. Pushing 50, Martin's no longer fit to dive. He wants the spy job because it will give him nightmares, and he misses the nightmares he used to have, and it is a mark of Herlin's skill that he makes this outlandish motivation perfectly comprehensible in context.
There are a couple of women in the case--Zimra Steffin, Martin's lost love from his last sojourn behind the Iron Curtain, and Elsa, the German schoolteacher who sets her cap for him. (Martin, disguised as a Spanish schoolteacher, is slipped into Prague to attend some sort of junket for educators.) There's Nemecek, the Czech tour guide, and Borchers, the leak in the West German intelligence apparatus, and Geissler, Carow's alcoholic colleague who craves a kind word that Carow will never supply.
Everyone withholds information from everyone else. Martin sets up his own escape route. Carow assigns two bodyguards to his agent without letting Martin know. C sabotages his own agent to get his own guesses confirmed.
Herlin writes thoughtfully and well and, in the present instance, he has been well-served by his translator. The characters are interesting and curiously sympathetic, the plot solid if a wee bit thin, and it takes no effort to go on turning the pages until the generally satisfying conclusion is reached. If I have a problem with the book I suppose it lies in the fact that it is perfectly representative of a perfectly tired genre. I don't know that it's possible to make this sort of book fresh and new. Too many spies have come in from the cold in the past 15 or 20 years.
Am I giving away too much by telling you that Carow finally shoots the dog? As he takes the gun from his pocket, he wonders "what to do with the dog afterward. With a human being he would have known, but whom could he call on a Sunday to dispose of a pointer's carcass?"
It's a nice touch, and the book is full of nice touches. A shame that familiarity makes the whole rather less than the sum of its unimpeachable parts.