Tuesday, June 17, 2008


The background taken from the publicity material:

'Alexei Volkovoy known to all as Volk, a battle hardened veteran of Russia's brutal war in Chechnya, prowls Moscow's grim alleyways, a knife concealed in his prosthetic foot at all times. 
As both  a major player in the black market and a covert agent for the Russian military, Volk serves two masters: Maxim, a psychotic Azeri mafia kingpin with hordes of loyal informers; and a man known only as the General, to whom Volk is mysteriously indebted. By his side is Valya, an exotic beauty charged with protecting Volk from his unsavory associates..............

Together they are commissioned to steal a long lost da Vinci painting called Leda and the Swan from St Petersburg's Hermitage Museum. '

'Stunning and brilliant....Ghelfi's prose is like a dark drug that pulls you further under its spell with each taste...... BookReporter.com'

I have to admit I don't read many thrillers apart from Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series but I was intrigued by the concept of a book about the New Russia. I must say the book by Phoenix based business man and former clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals Brent Ghelfi is a lot better than the overhyped publicity would have you believe.

Phrases in blurbs such as the 'beauty of Ghelfi's prose' [Seattle Mystery Bookshop] and 'that is also beautifully written..' [David L. Robbins, author of  The Assassin's Gallery] make me wonder if I have read the same book. 
This is a hard nosed very violent thriller not a play by Chekhov, or a novel by Tolstoy. 
The protagonist Volk is a lot more like the Jeff Lindsay's damaged anti-hero Dexter than Arkady Renko or James Bond.
There are well written and quite moving passages in the book where Volk becomes almost human and cares for the old and young victims of Russia's new capitalism. 
He philosophizes in between killings on Russia's problems.

"We live in a country where base actions go unpunished" he said. Setting the paper aside, preparing to leave the cafe to kill Dudayev, I am forced by an insufferable voice inside my head to reflect on the wretched reality of his words.

'The bloody past of the motherland all depicted in stylized tiles turning black with grime. The dead , the dying and the forever wounded clumped in wasted piles, spent to preserve .....what ?'

The plot is fairly complicated and in Volk's world everyone seems to know everyone else either from Chechnya, or from black market deals, or from sleeping together. Blackmail and betrayal are the order of the day as he rushes from Moscow, and St Petersburg to Prague and New York leaving a trail of bodies and dismembered body parts.

Did I find the book an easy read? Yes. The narrative moves at a fierce pace.
Did I enjoy it? Well despite the incredible body count and the extreme brutality I have to be honest and say  yes.
Would I read another Volk? Yes, and surely that is the test of any book. 

What of the message that Russia's new capitalism and military adventures have destroyed its people. 
Well Russia has always been a 'thugocracy'. Whether under the Tsars, or the Soviets, or the new Republicans the ordinary people have always suffered terrible deprivation at the hands of the powerful. 
That is part of being Russian, I just thank my great grandparents and grandparents for having the sense to leave in the 1880s.  
The nearest I have been to Russia is Helsinki just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The prosperous Finnish capital was full of black Russian limousines disembarking ugly hard men gone to seed accompanied by mink clad young  leggy blondes ready to sample the delights of the West. 
In  our hotel were two Russians who told me they had visited 'your beautiful English city of Portsmouth'. My reaction was that they must be naval intelligence officers and for all its history if they thought Portsmouth was beautiful Russia must be hell.

If you want to read a thriller that is a bit different, full of excitement, surprises,and violent action as well as beautiful women then this is a book for you. 
You can win a copy of Volk's Game here.

'The barrel of the Kalashnikov cracks her teeth when I shove it into her mouth.....When I can see that she knows what's coming I pull the trigger and shower brains and bone all over the chamber.' 

Thanks to Picador USA for supplying the book and two extra copies for prizes.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Henry Holt - the publisher in the US - sent me this over a year ago.

There's a lot of hype, so it's interesting to read your take on this novel.

For me, it's a bit like Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island: feted in the media, but did not met my expectations. Where I completed reading Shutter Island - and felt cheated - I could not get into this novel at all and hated it.

It just didn't grab me. Perhaps I ought to try it again...

3:22 PM  

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