(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky APR 10, 2007)
“When he held out his hand in front of him, he lost sight of his own fingers, and wondered if his own body was disappearing. Even the streetlights had been reduced to the faintest of glows. One step into the hanging mist, and perhaps the fog would swallow him whole, spitting him out only in another dimension of space and time.”
The best spy thrillers go beyond the formulaic to offer us psychological and political insights. At its best, Boris Starling's Visibility brilliantly accomplishes this while it entertains us with a historical and scientific mystery that is as intricate as it is suspenseful. Set during the Great Fog of London in 1952, the novel's atmospheric setting is ominous and frightening. The choking miasma of toxic fumes and the inability of the populace to travel or even see one foot ahead of their faces are metaphors for the emotional, physical, and moral blindness that afflict the book's characters.
Thirty-four-year old Herbert Smith was formerly a soldier in the British Army and later a "watcher" (surveillance operative) for MI5, the British Security Service responsible for protecting the UK against threats to national security. He is now a Detective Inspector in New Scotland Yard's Murder Squad. Smith is a reserved and lonely man, whose only living relative is his mother, Mary, with whom he has a contentious relationship. Nor do his colleagues have much use for a former spy who made detective without ever serving his time as a copper.
When Smith catches the case of a floater, he embarks on an investigation that will pit him against devious men who are willing to torture and kill in order to achieve their goals. The victim is identified as a scientist who possessed vitally important information that would confer great power on whoever acquired it. Smith endangers his life to find the killer, but his understanding of the case is hampered by deceitful, greedy, and ambitious individuals who are anxious to keep Smith from learning the truth. Soon, Smith takes on an unofficial assistant, the beautiful Hannah Mortimer. Although she is blind, Hannah sees people and situations more clearly than most sighted people, and Herbert is immediately entranced by this exotic, intelligent, and compassionate woman.
Boris Starling's descriptive writing is beautifully evocative. His characters are well-rounded, the dialogue is sharp and often dryly humorous, and the narrative is fast-paced and deliciously complex. The author touches on controversial practices during the fifties that, in the light of twenty-first century sensibilities, are somewhat unsettling, such as the discrimination against practicing homosexuals (a policy that forced gay men to go deeply into the closet), and the fear and hatred of communism, which led democratic governments to shelter scientists who were former members of the Nazi party. The book's sole flaw is its over-the-top ending that veers dangerously close to melodrama. Still, Visibility has many delights to offer: an incisive look at how history and science intersect, an off-beat and touching love story, and a deadly game of spy vs. spy that, much like the book's impenetrable fog, keeps the reader off-balance until the truth is finally revealed.
- Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
(Reviewed by Jana Kraus MAY 1, 2006)
Boris Starling's sprawling narrative is set in Moscow over a period of only four and one half months, yet the novel is epic in nature. From December 23, 1991, to May 9, 1992, the reader is taken on a wild roller coaster ride through a landscape reeling in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the inception of privatization. I should put "privatization" in quotations because no one could have envisioned exactly how chaotic the conversion of industries and businesses from governmental ownership to private enterprise would be.
This is the anarchic period of Boris Yeltsin's takeover of power from Mikhail Gorbachev, and, if you don't mind a plot, and an extraordinary number of subplots, which go off on a multitude of tangents, then you just might be caught up in Vodka, as I certainly was. What a ride (!) - frequently wild and improbable... but so much fun!! If you prefer your prose tight and your storyline well organized, needless to say, this is not the book for you.
By December 1991, all of the former republics had declared independence. In the world of nonfiction, Vladimir Putin, Russia's current president, called the collapse of the Soviet Union "the largest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." It resulted in economic crisis in Russia which continued for at least five years. Into this pandemonium steps the beauteous and brilliant Alice Liddell, an International Monetary Fund advisor responsible for overseeing the privatization of Red October, Russia's foremost vodka distillery.
The annual consumption of vodka in Russia, which has a population of approximately 146 million, is 4 billion liters a year. "The Russian Health Ministry estimated consumption in 1996 was 18 liters of pure alcohol per adult which is equivalent of 38 liters of 100 proof vodka." However, as the reader will discover, vodka is much more than the national drink. And as Ms. Liddell will discover, despite her entire history of professional banking and trading accomplishments, her ability to bring logic and order to her work environment just won't hack it in Moscow. And when she and her team meet Lev, "parliamentary deputy, distillery director, criminal godfather, champion weight lifter, his shoulders as wide as two men's, the crown of his head seven feet above the floor," and her new adversary, all bets for successfully transforming Red October into a private corporation, as defined outside of Russia, and introducing capitalism, American-style, are off.
The multiple subplots - well...there's a doozy of a serial killer on the loose in the big city and his/her victims are children; brutal Mafia wars between Chechen and Slavic crime syndicates bring a level of creative violence to this tale which makes our own Godfather's activities seem like shenanigans; ghosts of the Soviet-Afghani War haunt the novel's pages; an outrageously sentimental romance flourishes (and it works - although Anna Karenina it's not); alcoholism is painfully confronted by a main character; the making of vodka and the infinite variations of the final product are outlined and make for fascinating reading.
Some of the characters are really wonderful, in an entertaining sense. Lev is Robin Hood played by a Russian bear. And Juku Irk, the alienated Estonian investigator, is unusually sympathetic and original.
This is terrific, if simplistic and rambling historical fiction which manages to portray Russian Mafia interaction with government and the Party apparatus and make it appear logical, at times. It is also a helluva tale.
- Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Vodka at author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for Boris Starling
- Wikipedia page on Boris Starling
- Guardian Unlimited review of Vodka
- Blogcritics.org review of Vodka
- New Statesman review of Visibility
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About the Author:
Boris Starling was born in 1969 and educated at Eton College and Trinity College, Cambridge where he graduated with a First in History. He worked first as a journalist for England’s Sun and Daily Telegraph, then for a corporation that specializes in kidnap negotiations and confidential investigations.
He lives in London.