"Volk's Game "
(Reviewed by Tony Ross JUN 14, 2007)
“What do you know about art, Volk?”
With the notable exception of Frederick Forsyth, whose books The Odessa File and The Day of the Jackal are masterpieces of the genre, I rarely read thrillers. However, the present-day Russian setting of this debut intrigued me just enough to pick it up when I needed a change of pace in my reading.
Although the post-Soviet "new Russia" is more than ten years old now, it's maintained a "wild west" reputation that makes it a fertile setting for outsized action and characters like those found in this debut.
Volk (meaning "wolf" in Russian) is Alexei Volkovoy, once an orphaned child growing up in Cold War-era Russia, then a special forces sniper for the Russian Army in Chechnya, is now a shady underworld figure in Moscow. His game is all manner of vice (except child prostitution, he's got a strict age limit: 14) as well as some high-level art thievery on behalf of a shadowy master named "The General." It is the latter element which propels the plot, as Volk is directed to procure a long-lost Da Vinci painting from the catacombs of the Hermitage where it has lain hidden alongside other booty from the Red Army's march to Berlin half a century earlier. If this sounds fairly straightforward, it's quickly complicated by Maxim, a ruthless Azeri mafioso who dominates Moscow's organized crime. Maxim also wants the painting, and seems to have and eyes and ears everywhere.
Of course there are tons of twists and turns, betrayals of all kinds, and plenty of fisticuffs, gunplay, and other violence. The latter elements are worth noting, as the book gets pretty gruesome, with several torture scenes, as well as flashbacks to scenes from Volk's years in Chechnya (where he lost a leg). I'm not a particularly squeamish reader, but some of the interrogation scenes were unpleasantly vivid. It's also worth noting that readers had better like their heroes to be antiheroes, because Volk gets his hands quite dirty, both on the receiving and giving end of some of the torture. Furthermore, the book highlights the unsavory elements of post-Soviet Russia, such as starving pensioners and Army vets living in tiny, squalid apartments, and the wholesale literal prostitution of its population for Western consumption. One almost expects a donation form at the back of the book for some kind of Russian charity.
Volk is a bit too much of a Hollywood-style killing machine, whose grim determination gets a little mechanical over time. His soft spot for kids and widows and old Army guys is supposed to temper this somewhat, but it comes across more cliche than anything else. He is also humanized somewhat by the presence of his lithe, sexy, and deadly teen girlfriend/partner Valya. They met in Chechnya under somewhat hazy circumstances and have clung to each other ever since. She's also a bit of a standard type, as are just about all of the characters. This is less of a flaw among the supporting cast, as the reader is not asked to invest as much in them. But then again, one doesn't read a book like this for the characters, one reads it for the plot twists, action, and vivid locales (here Moscow, St. Petersburg, Prague, and New York) -- and it delivers all of these with aplomb. The book ends with the hint of further adventures to come, although I'm not sure if I'm ready to spend another 300 pages with such a nasty protagonist. For those who like their thrillers bursting with color and blood, this is just the ticket.
- Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Volk's Game at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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About the Author:
Brent Ghelfi has served as a clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals, been a partner in a Phoenix-headquartered law firm, and now owns and operates several businesses. He has traveled extensively throughout Russia, and lives in Phoenix with his wife, a former prosecutor, and their two sons.