Like the electronic typewriter and the rotary phone, East-versus-West espionage novels have gone quickly from being everyday staples to yesterday’s relics. Without the Soviet Union to provide world-class mischief and properly gadgeted villains, writers like John le Carre and Frederick Forsyth have been floundering for the past five years, searching hard for a Kremlin substitute. But the future of international shenanigans, in fiction as in daily life, seems apt to have less to do with political isms and more to do with private greed. Which is why David Lindsey’s Requiem for a Glass Heart feels like a herald of intrigues to come: Though resembling a classic spy story in plotting, chicanery, and pace, it turns out, upon closer inspection, to be a savvy crime novel about multinational gangsters with bogus passports.
In the good old bad days of the Cold War, a character like Sergei Krupatin — suave, callous, devious — would have been a zealous KGB agent. In the new privatized Russia, however, he’s a criminal mastermind who runs his mafiya empire ”like Caligula.” With inconceivable wealth and world domination as the ultimate prizes, Krupatin has hatched a scheme to eliminate his two main competitors, an effete Hong Kong drug lord named Wei Tsing and a thuggish Sicilian don named Carlo Bontate. After agreeing to meet both men in Houston for an amicable crime summit, Krupatin summons his best assassin, Irina Ismaylova, and takes her with him to Texas.
While female contract killers are nothing new (heck, they’re a dime a dozen) in genre fiction, Irina turns out to be an original and nuanced creation. From her first appearance to our last bloody glimpse of her, she’s believable, scary, and profoundly sad. A woman of keen intellect and sensitivity, an art historian and a great beauty, Irina spends her bleak life committing homicides on command. If she doesn’t, Krupatin, her former lover, will kill their young daughter. She is ”simply a woman without recourse, which made her unpredictable, resourceful, and dangerous.”
In case you’ve been wondering where all the spies are, a joint task force of intelligence agents from the U.S., Germany, and Russia has been assembled in Texas to monitor Krupatin’s every move and to infiltrate Cate Cuevas, an undercover FBI agent, into his organization.
At first mistaking Irina for Krupatin’s decorative mistress, Cate — recently widowed and an emotional mess — befriends the assassin but is soon adrift in a moral twilight zone. When Irina decides to betray Krupatin, Cate’s sympathy eclipses both her professionalism and her common sense, and she finds herself becoming a hitwoman’s accomplice.
As he amply demonstrated in 1991’s Mercy, David Lindsey is a solid craftsman. His characters all have depth, and his novel never seems in any danger of flying off the road, even when the speed is furious. Yet at nearly 450 pages, it’s far too long for the story that it has to tell. Dialogue is often meandering and repetitious, and descriptive passages feel unsorted, crammed, over-full. And the less said about the clunky sex scenes, the better. Still, Glass Heart is among the best spy thrillers to come along since the Evil Empire collapsed. B