THE MOSCOW CLUB
By Joseph Finder
Viking. 548 pp. $19.95END NOTES
At first glance, the contemporary world stage would seem a tricky place to set a novel of international intrigue. After all, who could possibly devise a plot any more convoluted than the daily headlines? And who is left to serve as a satisfactory foe? If such books require at least one sinister and easily identifiable enemy and maybe the attendant threat of all-out nuclear war to drive them, perhaps we should bring back the Evil Empire.
Not so fast. Even before the superpowers buried the hatchet, writers whose narratives had any complexity at all were already fishing in waters where the bad guys swam in the same pond as the good guys and conflicts involved more than just us and them. Plots at least since John le Carre have thrived on ambivalence and subtlety, misdirection and confusion. Now that red seems just another color, such novelists find a world equal to their intricacies where former adversaries prop each other up while the common enemy wants a return to the way it used to be.
Despite getting off on the wrong foot, Joseph Finder's "The Moscow Club" turns out to be a fine example of this new variation on the old genre. Though at the outset appearing ready to take us back to the old days when good was good and bad was evil and telling them apart was simple, it straightens out soon enough, involving and challenging its readers right through to the end.
When we first meet Charles Stone -- strong, competent, sensitive -- he's rock climbing in the Adirondacks, communing with the elements. Suddenly a helicopter drops down, plucks him off the summit and whisks him back to New York. Chill winds are blowing, and Stone, an analyst for a super-secret branch of the CIA called Parnassus, is needed to figure out where they're coming from. Awash in jargon, it sounds so far just like any other lightweight techno-thriller. Before long, though, it begins moving in its own deeper and more satisfying direction.
The job of Parnassus is to filter through bits of raw data and decide what they all mean. And Stone is its star, having predicted the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, to name only his greatest triumphs.
So when a curious conversation between two high Soviet officials is intercepted, who better to spirit away from a rock face in Upstate New York? Besides, the transcript refers to Stone's godfather, the powerful and mysterious Winthrop Lehman, an Armand Hammer type and adviser to presidents, who has known every Soviet leader since the first. Also mentioned is something called "The Lenin Testament," a shadowy document that may or may not exist, but that came up briefly during the congressional hearing that led to the false imprisonment of Stone's father during the Red Scare of the '50s. All this is just a warm-up for some real complexities.
Before long we discover that a number of schemes and a number of schemers are at work simultaneously. The immediate aim of all of them is the overthrow of the Soviet government, but what makes the novel particularly engaging is that each has a different goal in mind and none is entirely certain where the others are going or how exactly they plan to get there.
What is certain is that Stone has stumbled across something massive and is in really big trouble. Through no particular fault of his own, he has become a hindrance to everyone's clandestine agenda and must be gotten rid of, fast. Set up for his father's brutal murder and with no other options, Stone takes off, with the CIA, the KGB, the FBI, a secret Soviet group called the Sekretariat ("the Moscow Club"), a secret American group called the Sanctum Sanctorum and various municipal police departments on two continents in hot pursuit.
His flight takes him from New York to back alleys in Boston, a hotel room in Washington, an apartment in Chicago, suburban Toronto, the sewers of Paris and, finally, to Moscow and his estranged wife, on the verge of Revolution Day and a summit meeting in the Kremlin. Meanwhile, the death toll mounts in his wake.
Unraveling the tangle of plot and counter-plot takes some doing, but the author, who has been a member of the Harvard faculty and has written extensively on Soviet affairs ("Red Carpet: The Connection Between the Kremlin and America's Most Powerful Businessmen"), never lets the narrative get out of hand. His insider's portrait of the machinations of government (both ours and theirs) is often riveting, and his knowledge of the manipulative ways of statecraft is always impressive.
Although "The Moscow Club" is a first novel, Finder shows the control and sense of pace of a veteran, giving us an entertaining, provocative and highly readable thriller, one that leaves us with profound questions about where we are all heading and just who's leading us there. Moreover, the bewildering recent events in the Soviet Union may lead readers to suspect that what he has written is less fiction than forecast. The reviewer writes frequently about Latin America.