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Book Review: 'The Blind Spy' by Alex Dryden

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The Blind Spy, the third volume of Alex Dryden's series of novels on Putin's Russia, has been out in the UK for some time, but has just been released as a U.S. hardcover by Ecco. For me, the 18-month delay was worth the wait.

Dryden's opening book, Red to Black, focused on the British spy Finn and his forbidden love, the KGB colonel Anna Resnikov. Proving that great fiction writers don't care so much for their characters that they prevent them from harm, Dryden dramatically offed Finn in the final pages, as his protagonist dug deeper and deeper into the shadowy world of illicit Russian billions and the illegal activities that both fueled and profited from them.

Book two, Moscow Sting, saw Resnikov defecting to the United States with her son, Finn, after their cover in France was blown by a bitter and confused ex-CIA agent, Logan Halloran. He had offered her location to the Russians, British and Americans, and it was the American private security firm Cougar -- created with more than a nod to Blackwater and its ilk -- that paid top dollar. Though she had little choice in the matter, Resnikov is happy to work with Cougar and its dominant, brilliant and larger-than-life supremo, Burt Miller, who may just be more powerful than the CIA Director he frequently works with, for her own ends. Though she is driven by revenge for Finn's death, she has realized that Putin's Moscow is rotten to the core, and will stop at nothing to bring about change in her homeland.

In The Blind Spy, Resnikov's involvement with Cougar is intensified. She has successfully brought an influential countryman and former member of Putin's inner circle, a man known only as his cover name, Mikhail, over to the intelligence firm. And rather than sit back as a consultant, she has reluctantly given up her son, who is being raised by ex-operatives on a farm in Connecticut, so she can focus full-time on bringing down Putin's administration. At her insistence, she is acting as a field operative in Ukraine, attempting to discover how Russia's attempts to stamp out nascent democracy in the former Soviet state and bring it back under Moscow's control.

To complicate matters, Miller is allowing Halloran to work in the same area. In addition to being aware of his betrayal, Resnikov was the unwilling subject of his affections during her first few months in the U.S., and is now trying to focus on her work in spite of his continued ardor and loose-cannon personality. She also has to contend with a leak in either Cougar or the CIA that compromises her safety in the Crimea, and the ire of the KGB, which will stop at nothing to capture her and make her pay for her defection. Their point man for this is Balthasar, a formidable operative whose blindness is more than compensated for by intuition and an uncanny knack for sensing the motivations of those around him.

When reading such a book, I have to be convinced that the author is credible, and when it comes to Putin-era Russia, there is no question that Dryden knows his stuff. From detailed descriptions of time and place to a masterful understanding of what makes today's Russia tick, he creates a realistic and, at times, terrifying portrayal. Dryden's development of his heroine is also first-rate. While he mentions her physical beauty and the impact of it on male colleagues too often, Dryden has expertly drawn a complex, conflicted and intriguing character who is living trapped between the Russia of her past, the America of her present and the unknown destination of her future. At first I struggled to reconcile her decision to give up the son who was the living reminder of her great love, Finn, and yet as Dryden's narrative progressed, it became clear that his was necessary for his safety and to her success in the field. Dryden could have fallen into the trap of sentimentality here or its opposite, callousness, but he avoids both, showing a mother who loves her son with all her being, but also exists to secure a better world for him to grow up in.

Another interesting element of the book is the relationship between Resnikov and the spy chief, Burt Miller. He is somewhat Churchillian in body and spirit -- a large man who laughs easily yet has a granite core, a fierce intellect who can be undone by his equally big ego, an eager conversationalist whose mouth only reveals a tenth of what his brain is scheming. At times, Resnikov seems to view him as a father figure, yet in other moments she suspects he is just using her to further Cougar's aims and therefore his ever-growing personal fortune. Which is it? Right up to the final page, this doesn't get resolved.

Dryden's exploration of the company Miller helms is also fascinating. While it is clear that Cougar is a money making operation -- as Miller himself frequently voices and flaunts with yachts and other fancy possessions which, ironically, seem to match the expensive toys of the Russian oligarchs Finn was trying to bring down in Red to Black -- it also appears to be a force for good in some ways. As the CIA is cutting back its operations in Ukraine while the Russian menace looms, Cougar is increasing its efforts. The CIA Director and head of British intelligence are running joint operations with the Russians and the French administration is cozying up to Moscow in an effort to advance its economy, and, though itself motivated by money, Cougar is free of the shackles of international diplomacy and inter-government trade. Dryden does not portray Cougar as a malevolent entity as some writers have with private intelligence groups, but neither does he heroize its members or intentions.

As is the case with John le Carré, Dryden shows that there are no truly "good guys" -- each person in his narrative is, like the rest of us, a mess of contradictions and self-delusions that manifest themselves in unexpected and sometimes inexplicable ways. The only real "bad guys" in The Blind Spy seem to be the puppet masters in the Kremlin, though the examples of Resnikov, Mikhail and others in the story show that just because a country is corrupt and undemocratic does not mean its citizens are all complicit in its abuses.

Which brings us to another Russian whose present actions and future aims stem from unclear motives -- Balthasar. Until the final pages, Dryden wants the reader to believe that this spy who is blind is the inspiration for the novel's title. And yet, as Resnikov struggles to stay alive, the CIA is duped into a huge mistake by the KGB and Balthasar makes his fateful choice, Dryden shows that in this world of intrigue, double crossing and big money, there is more to perceiving than merely seeing.