The Rift Zone by Raelynn Hillhouse

Faith Whitney, the protagonist in THE RIFT ZONE, is an unusual character. She’s a smuggler as comfortable crossing the Iron Curtain as the average person is driving into Canada; her life on the knife-edge of east-west tension seems to suit her. Faith comes by her craft naturally; her mother is a fundamentalist Christian operating in the old Soviet Union. Her father is a figure of mystery, rumored dead or imprisoned in the gulag. Faith keeps an apartment in West Berlin; her roommate, Hakan, is an expert document forger.

In the novel’s set-up Faith is grabbed off the street by agents of the East German security service, the STASI. They want her to deliver a package to Moscow; to make sure she understands, they torture her, starve her and nearly drown her in the Spree. There’s more at stake than black market Marlboros or Uzbek china; the STASI want Faith to smuggle a bomb into Russia.

THE RIFT ZONE is a debut novel, although you’d never know it by the crisp writing, steady stream of wit and well-chosen action scenes. Ms. Hillhouse takes the eastern sector of divided Berlin and makes it come back to gritty life, deftly delivering Faith the field craft necessary to survive. The introduction of Summer, her former lover, SEAL and explosives expert, allows for banter and sexual tension while they prepare to outwit their opponents. The trip to Moscow is suitably hair raising; Faith has an uneasy alliance with a seductive KGB agent named Zara.

The author has great fun at the expense of ponderous Soviet-era slogans and institutions. She also manages to convey a sense of life in Berlin, West or East, during the tense decade of the Eighties. For all the machinations of the forces of evil the plot is a simple one, and if the novel has a weakness, it’s the hint of high-concept, Faith Whitney versus the combined intelligence services of the DDR and Soviet Russia. A few scenes are too long, but you probably won’t notice or care. This is a spy novel with a twist of irony and a fine eye for official hubris.

Having lived in Germany for four years when the Cold War was at its height, THE RIFT ZONE made me laugh with recognition and shudder when Faith was east of the wall. Let’s hope we hear more from Raelynn Hillhouse.