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Book Review: Red to Black by Alex Dryden

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When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 all of Europe enjoyed a symbolic group hug. The infertile prophecies of Marx and the paralyzing political threats of Engels had not only come up short for the Soviet Union, it caused the country to be trapped in stifling economic hibernation for almost a century. After the European love-in otherwise known as the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia had the Augean task of a national makeover of an unparalleled scale. On Russia’s short to-do list was to completely overhaul its economy, invent a new political structure from scratch, and keep its country unified while trying to retain its national identity after the erosive cultural ravages of the communist system.

One of the most vital unifying factors that facilitated Russia’s survival past those daunting times was the strong-arm internal security agency known as the KGB, who were loaded for bear as it were. Some would fancy the KGB did an excellent job in the transition of the Soviet Union into its new era. Others would fancy that the KGB are still doing an excellent job. In Red to Black, Alex Dryden entertains the idea that not only is the vestige of the Soviet Union known as the KGB still operational today, it’s behind a unsettling conspiracy that reaches across Europe and around the globe.

Now for a short debriefing about the main agents of the saga. Finn is a cool and indefatigable seasoned British agent of MI6 stationed in Moscow who acts as a British Second Secretary of Trade and Investment. He is a pragmatist who is true to himself, a lone wolf in patriot’s clothing. Anna is a top notch spy and colonel in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service with family ties to the KGB who is assigned to keep an eye on the British agent. For those of you who are familiar with the cloak and dagger swagger of 007, Anna acts as a sort of Tatiana Romanova to Finn’s James Bond, but the parallels of characters in Alex Dryden’s Red to Black to Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love mainly stop there. Fleming’s capricious set of characters in his James Bond serials are somewhat contrary to the sober characters that populate Dryden’s work. The spooks in Red to Black are more realistic, yet just as captivating as anything you’d find in Fleming.

Stylistical comparisons between the two authors are just as different. Fleming loved detail; the devil was in the details in the misadventures of Bond. Dryden uses detail, too, but for him the devil was also in the omissions.

One example of Dryden’s dance of omissions is present in the emerging romantic relationship of Finn and Anna, who both are aware that each other is a spy. Dryden creates a sophisticated shadowing of duty and love between the two agents on the backdrop of the hunt for truth. His dialogue of subtleties and secrets delicately intertwines the professional and personal relationships of the starcrossed spies. This effect of omission gives the reader just enough information to surveil the story and interpret its characters, yet not enough to endanger the tempo or immersive quality of this novel konspiratsia. As a result of this interplay he creates for the reader just the right amount of guesswork. Just like your average intelligence agent, the reader is told only what they absolutely need to know.

Narrated by Anna, the Russian Foreign Intelligence agent, the story follows the official and personal missions of Finn through the mythical echelons of Russian Intelligence and into the hidden world of black market finance and banking. Finn has to navigate a world where information – the rix-dollar of the spy world – can be just as valuable and consequently just as deadly as money. Finn is forced to play the information game to further his hunt for the products and profiteers that are creating a massively dangerous flow of dirty money. Anna tags along for many of Finn’s operations, finding herself more and more entangled, not only in the designs of Finn but with Finn himself.

The issue of trust between them becomes an recurring acquaintance, and to worsen matters their bond is constantly tested by their suspicious directorates who are perpetually on guard against them going rogue. Finn and Anna find themselves in a vertiginous game of cat and mouse with each other, with their overseers, and against the fatal criminal world of black markets filled with industrial giants and cutthroat government operatives. What they discover is beyond their comprehension: a surging river of illicit cash coursing through the most powerful banks in Europe for a purpose that would undoubtedly shock the west if it could do anything about it.

If you don't see the current peaceful relationship between the old foes of the Cold War as fertile grounds for inspiring a new spy novel, Alex Dryden might argue you aren’t looking deep enough. As the old accusatory chestnut goes: “still waters run deep,” and the novel Red to Black by Alex Dryden conspires that the deep waters of the Cold War might be just as frigid as ever.

Red to Black is written by writer and journalist Alex Dryden. His journalism has appeared in such news outlets as London’s The Daily Telegraph, the Birmingham Post, and the National Post in Canada. It is published by Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers and is now available for purchase. Please visit the book’s trailer on YouTube.

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  • Dmitrii

    RE: Marx and Engels

    Just goes to show, never follow the philosophical teachings of a pissed off German.