Review by Meredith Rankin
This is number 3 in the Sean Richardson series, but it works as a standalone. However, there are certain details from the previous novel included, so it might be best to start at the series beginning.
Relationships and various other things have changed between The Kompromat Kill and The Moscow Whisper. Sean’s been on a downward spiral with his alcoholism–again–and his boss, Jack H, has forced him to see a therapist. But Jenkins does a good job of bringing us up to date on any changes whenever the reader needs to know the information. He's good at doling out information on a need-to-know basis.
Point of view
I particularly appreciate how he uses point of view for this purpose. It seems as though almost every current thriller/suspense novel I’ve encountered is written in either first person or a close third person. (Sometimes it’s an uncomfortably close third person!)
But here, Jenkins employs a third person omniscient. (Is this more common in spy novels than other subgenres in the suspense/mystery/thriller category?) This allows the omniscient narrator to tell us things the focal character doesn’t know: someone’s being followed or betrayed or destined to die sooner than they’d like.
But it’s not indiscriminately omniscient. We’re given slivers of information without the particulars, enough to tantalize us. It’s like discovering there’s a ticking bomb nearby, but not knowing where or when or how this metaphorical (or literal) bomb will detonate.
And let me tell you, when a bomb explodes in a Sean Richardson novel, it’s gonna be big, and picking up the pieces ain’t gonna be easy.
Oh, and if early in a novel a character proclaims that some task will be “easy,” you can rest assured that the job will not be easy. And in the case of Jenkins’ fiction, the job will also be treacherous, entertaining, and disturbingly relevant to our times.
And if a setting appears peaceful and tranquil–say, a dinner party with friends or a pasture with bleating sheep or a sleepy oceanside town–then beware: it won’t remain tranquil for long. Violence lurks around the corner, but you’ll never guess which corner.
Jenkins excels at pacing. He knows when to cut from one chapter to the next, darting between locations and characters. I can’t remember how many times I promised myself to stop reading at the end of a chapter, only to have the chapter end at the moment of highest suspense. Of course, I had to read the next chapter . . .
The first third of the book clips along at a steady pace. Jenkins sets up the game board, puts all the players in place, and lays out the stakes. The opening moves include a few surprises. Then midway through the book, the game’s stakes raise to an even higher level, rather as if someone threw down a hefty bet on the outcome. Winner takes all. All losers die–or worse. Then the story takes off. Anyone might be the winner–or the loser.
Once the action started rolling, it never stopped. I was breathless as I raced alongside Sean and other characters. No one was safe. Nothing was off-limits. Anything might happen. It was only when I turned to the acknowledgements page that I knew it was safe to breathe again.
There’s a lot of great insider-type information. There’s no way for me to verify whether the memos, spy techniques, and the like are authentic. (The CIA and MI5 aren’t going to fret over misinformation, whether it’s deliberate or accidental.) But the information feels authentic, and that feeling evokes the mysterious mood that draws me to this genre.
There’s a friendly (or is it?) rivalry/relationship between the CIA and the MI5 played out between Jack and his CIA counterpart, Laura. It lends a bit of humor in otherwise serious and all-too-realistic scenarios. It’s easy to imagine these types of political maneuverings taking place behind closed doors. Easy and a bit frightening, to be honest.
Old school & high tech
I really enjoyed the old-school spy techniques that some characters use. For those who aren’t tech-savvy (um, me), things like dead letter drops and disguises are easier to understand than some of the mind-blowing tech found elsewhere. For me, these old-school techniques harken back to classic spy novels and pique my interest, evoking a feeling of what-might-be: any place I go might be a drop off site . . . any person might be a spy . . . anything might be happening. Anything. It makes me look at the world in a different way. (And after this book, that includes public toilets!) Not in a suspicious way but in a wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if . . .? sort of way.
But Jenkins does a marvelous job with the high tech techniques and devices, too. (At least it’s high tech to me.) And if the future of warfare and ginormous blow-up-in-your-face devices that go boom-bang-crash! interest you, then you need to grab this book. The amount of weaponry in this book would equip an entire army’s personnel and their grandmas. It’s impressive. Jenkins clearly knows what he’s talking about.
A few issues
The few things I tripped up on are relatively trivial writing details, the types of things that matter to me because I read books as a writer, not only as a reader.
There’s a few too many lengthy fragments. I normally don’t mind fragments. But some of these fragments are too long and that makes them feel more like accidentally incomplete sentences, rather than deliberate stylistic choices. That’s a personal opinion, of course. Others may not read those sections the same way I do.
(I hope this next concern isn’t a spoiler! But I'm marking it as one just in case.)
However, Jenkins is imaginative and he’ll be able to challenge Sean in other ways. From a personal standpoint, both Sean’s relationship with his young son and his colleague Samantha provide plenty of fodder for conflict and plot-complications. His alcoholism, unrelieved grief over his wife’s death, and the changing nature of his relationships with Jack H and Laura are also possible things to exploit for dramatic purposes; they haven't been yet. Jenkins has set up plenty of complicated relationships to explore. At this point, the series could do any number of directions.
One thing I enjoyed . . .
I like that Sean grapples with the moral complexities of his job. Is it right to kill if it saves people’s lives? How? And when? He’s dislikes killing, though he doesn’t hesitate to fight to the death. He can’t afford to hesitate. But the constant deception and threats and mistrust of others: all of this takes a toll on the mind and body. In this series, Sean isn’t the only one who suffers, but his fragile mental stability means that these questions take on a greater gravity. He does a job that most of us would prefer to remain within the realm of fiction, and he pays a high price for it. It’s sobering to think about this.