Red To Black by Alex Dryden

Red to Black by Alex Dryden seems to be clearly aiming for the blend of current events and espionage made famous by John Le Care but Dryden adds in a large dose of love story.

It also has the feel of an indictment of Vladimir Putin‘s Russia, and a castigation of the West’s response, in fiction form. Put it all together and it makes for an interesting read; some of it works very well other aspects less well.

Here is a video trailer for the book:

For the more textual among us here is the blurb:

Finn is a veteran MI6 operative stationed in Moscow. In the guise of an amiable trade secretary, he has penetrated deep into the dangerous labyrinth that is Russia under Vladimir Putin to discover some of its darkest secrets, thanks to a high-level source deep within the Kremlin.

The youngest female colonel in the KGB, Anna is the ambitious daughter of one of the former Soviet Union’s elite espionage families. Charged with helping to make Russia strong again under Putin, she is ordered to spy on Finn and discover the identity of his mole.

At the dawn of the new millennium, these adversaries find themselves brought together by an unexpected love that becomes the only truth they can trust. When Finn uncovers a shocking and ingenious plan—hatched in the depths of the Cold War—to control the European continent and shift the balance of world power, he and Anna are thrust into a deadly plot in which friend and foe wear the same face. With time running out, they will race across Europe and risk every-thing—career, reputation, and even their own lives—to expose the terrifying truth.

For my take see below.

I will be honest, this book seemed disjointed to me at times.  But part of that is the fact that I was reading before bed for however long I could last.  This often meant a chapter a night – not really enough to get fully into the flow of the story.

But I also think this is because the book has three threads Dryden is trying to weave together: 1) the espionage thread which is used as a vehicle for 2) the portrait of a Russia that suffocates the stirrings of democracy and heads back toward autocracy and 3) the love story.

When Dryden is focused on Finn’s obsession with “The Plan” – and Russia’s slide back to autocracy/oligarchy –  the book reads like an intelligent thriller with a strong current events focus. As a first time novelist, Dryden’s prose can be a little flat and heavy handed but the premise of a Russia resorting back to its Cold War ways and threatening Europe is plausible and full of tension.

That Dryden has an “axe to grind” – to use a phrase – just adds some oomph to the story.  And the fact that he knows a great deal about the history and circumstances involved only makes the story better and the real life component more disturbing.

But by using the love story as the structure on which to hang the story Dryden too often highlights the weakest part of the story. In fact, Anna and Finn are not that strong as characters and their love story drags the plot down – or at least it did for me.

Finn is easy to understand as someone obsessed with proving his theory right and showing his superiors that they were wrong to doubt him.  And Anna is a familiar character: talented daughter who follows in her father’s footsteps but to find distance not closeness; and who begins to feel trapped in the world she has chosen.  But you don’t feel the connection or romance between Finn and Anna – it is just presented as fact.

And Anna makes for an odd narrator. As noted above, the sections that deal with Finn’s trade craft and the larger plot surrounding The Plan work very well.  There is a complex history and a convoluted money trail to follow; and the larger meaning behind it all. This is just the Cold War updated.

Anna narrates the story from a safe house of sorts in Germany where she is desperately trying to unravel the mystery because Finn has disappeared.  But her trips to the coffee house or into the secret basement to read through Finn’s journals again just slow the story down.

I also found the subplot surrounding the mole/double agent Mikhail confusing and distracting.

But despite this set-up that doesn’t always work the book begins to pick up pace and ratchet up the tension as Finn and Anna race to unravel the last few clues before either the Russians or the British get wise to their actual work and shut it down. The second half of the story is well paced and exciting.

Unfortunately, just as the story really heats up it comes to a disappointing conclusion. Dryden didn’t seem to know exactly how to bring the espionage and love story plots to a neat conclusion so things rise to a climax and then just end; with a tacked on epilogue.

As the above has probably made clear, I am of mixed opinion on this one.  Parts of the story were actually quite interesting and well done; and the premise is a good one (and the problem of Russia all too real).

But all the moving parts don’t seem to come together.  The love story just doesn’t have the passion that the underlying mystery does and Dryden doesn’t pull off blending the two in my mind.

So, worth reading?  Depends on your tastes I suppose.  The Kirkus review mirrored my feelings best so I will give it the last word:

The intrigue is wonderfully twisty, and Dryden paints a terrifying portrait of Putin’s ruthless Russia, but the romance plot is labored and clumsy, as is much of Anna’s characterization. Terrific when it sticks to spycraft and the intricacies of geopolitics. Not so much when it attempts the intricacies of the heart.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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