Agent 6 By Tom Rob Smith, Grand Central, 467 pages, $28.99
Agent 6 is the culmination of the Russian trilogy begun with Child 44. If you haven’t read that and the second ( The Secret Speech), do so first. Agent 6 stands alone but is best read with the history and back story behind it. Smith does an excellent job of filling readers in, but the complexity of the times and characters thins out when reduced to a couple of chapters.
Leo Demidov, ex-KGB agent, is a happy man in 1965. He, his adored wife, Raisa, and their two adopted daughters live a quiet life in Moscow. Leo is managing a small factory. Raisa is a teacher, respected and, more important, trusted. She and their daughters are about to go to New York City, a rare treat for any Cold War-era Russian. There, they will be part of a demonstration of the glory of the state at the United Nations. The girls are excited to see the Statue of Liberty. Leo is worried about possible harm, political or criminal. Even in his worst imaginings, he can’t foresee the catastrophe coming.
The rest of the novel takes us from New York, to Moscow, and then to the Soviet Union’s ill-fated foray into Afghanistan. As always, Smith’s excellent command of recent Russian history backs up the dense plot. Eventually, Leo manages to unravel the disaster that broke apart his life.
The Angst-Ridden Executive By Manuel Vázquez Montalban, translated by Ed Emery, Melville House, 229 pages, $16.95
The late Manuel Vázquez Montalban was one of Spain’s finest crime writers, with a string of bestsellers featuring his somewhat stolid detective, Pepe Carvalho, who spends as much time on food as on investigations. Now, this terrific translation by Ed Emery brings us a story full of wit and style.
The case is the murder of industrialist Antonio Jauma. The time is 1977, when Franco’s hold on Spain is weakening. When Carvalho was working for the CIA, he once met Jauma. Jauma’s wife, unsure of the commitment of the police to unearth the truth, wants Pepe on the case. But challenging the official version of Jauma’s death could lead to his own.
The mood of this superb short novel is European noir, but Montalban added his own touches. Pepe is a gourmand who loves to toss together wonderful meals, and his investigative conversations run to commentaries on philosophy, fine dining and, of course, fascism. One of the funniest passages is his discussion with a Spanish poet in exile in Tijuana, Mexico, his bags packed waiting for Franco to die; it’s been 30 years and he has 20 unpublished books of poetry awaiting the Great Day. One can only hope for more from this marvellous series.
Cell 8 By Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström, Silver Oak, 370 pages, $27.95
Europeans are both fascinated and repelled by the U.S. commitment to capital punishment, particularly when teenagers are condemned. That’s the spine of this terrific novel by the Swedish team of investigative journalist Roslund and ex-criminal Hellström.
We begin in the dreadful reality of Ohio`s death row, where John Meyer Frey awaits his death. He has been here for 10 years, since he was 17 and convicted for the murder of his girlfriend. He insists he’s innocent, but so do most of the men awaiting execution. This section is slow, deliberate and difficult to read, because we go right into the death house along with the condemned, take that final walk, feel the electrodes of the chair.
Six years later, a singer on a Swedish ferry hits a drunk and ends up in a police station. When his papers turn out to be forged, the question of who he is arises and, as anyone can deduce, the dead man has returned. But this is only the beginning of this complex and very political plot.
The story of John Meyer Frey – his life, death, resurrection and return – comes to Detective Inspector Ewart Grens of the Stockholm police, and Grens is not about to accept the results of a quick and dirty investigation, even one 20 years old and in a foreign country. Roslund and Hellström are making a political statement, but they’re also terrific storytellers. You can’t read this novel and then vote for the return of the noose.
Breakdown By Sara Paretsky, Penguin Canada, 431 pages, $28.50
Has it really been 30 years since V.I. (Vic) Warshawski jumped out of a page and revolutionized the PI genre? Hard to believe that the smart gal who loves her Italian shoes is nearly 50 and has featured in 17 novels. Harder, too, to admit that Paretsky, a gifted but uneven writer, hasn’t always shown Vic in her best light. That, alas, is the case here.
We begin with the detective shadowing a group of tween girls in a cemetery, hoping to summon up a vampire. What they get is a corpse. The girls turn out to be from one of Chicago’s richest families. Then Vic’s old law-school friend calls her for help and turns up dead in the university chapel. There are links to Vic’s rich and powerful ex-husband’s law firm, and to a rabid right-wing TV network where the star commentator is waging war on immigrants and the poor.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to see who’s going to end up as the villain. Paretsky’s hatred for the Fox News bogs down her story and muddles a good mystery.
The Rope By Nevada Barr, Minotaur, 368 pages, $29.99
This prequel to the bestselling Anna Pigeon series isn’t as good as Barr’s other books. It starts well and then bogs down in details, repeated crises and unrequited romances.
The upside is learning how U.S. Park Ranger Pigeon became the smart, tough woman she is. We meet her as a weepy depressed new ranger at a rural park in Arizona, fresh from Manhattan and the loss of her husband, Zach. She’s also naked, abandoned in a hole in the ground and apparently left to die.
We know Anna is going to survive, so it’s how and why that carry the story. Barr strings out a series of crimes mixed with another ranger’s lust for Pigeon and her emerging strength and personal empowerment.
Believing the Lie By Elizabeth George, Dutton, 610 pages, $31
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the latest Lord Lynley novel by Elizabeth George is its size. At 610 pages, it’s more doorstop than page-turner. At least 200 pages could have been cut with no damage.
Lynley goes undercover to investigate the presumed accidental death of Ian Cresswell, nephew of the immensely wealthy Bernard Fairclough. There are rumblings of influence in Parliament and private connections to Scotland Yard. Lynley leaves Barbara Havers back in London, while his friends Simon and Deborah St. James accompany him to the luxury mansions of the hinterlands.
There are so many tiresome members of the Fairclough/Cresswell family that serious readers will need a scorecard. I got tired of flipping back pages and just soldiered on to the somewhat predictable end. The excess baggage – melodramatic angst as Deborah faces infertility, Havers decides to spruce up her wardrobe and hairdo – just drag on the story.