Published by St. Martin's Press/Minotaur Books on April 25, 2017
“We gather information by many means, but a single spy in the right place and at the right moment may change the course of history.” With that encouragement, a 17-year-old Russian boy named Alexsi is sent to Germany, where it is envisioned that he will spend years rising to a position that will allow him to uncover great secrets for the benefit of the Soviet Union.
A Single Spy begins as Alexsi, struggling to survive, joins a group of Shahsavan tribesmen, nomads who roamed between Iran and Azerbaijan until the Soviet army began to do serious border patrol. Escaping a Soviet ambush in 1936, Alexsi, at the age of sixteen, is again on his own. Alexsi speaks Russian, German, and Farsi, among other languages, and is improbably literate, which makes him attractive to the NKVD. Like it or not, Alexsi becomes a spy.
Alexsi’s first task is to infiltrate a group that opposes Stalin. To do that, he must take advantage of a girl he knew in the orphanage where he spent part of his youth. That gives William Christie an opportunity to write scenes that flash back to the corrupt and inhumane setting of a Soviet orphanage. Other flashbacks illustrate Alexsi’s pre-orphanage years and explain how Alexsi later came to be living with Shahsavan tribesmen.
In the present, Alexsi serves the Soviets while pretending to serve the Germans in Berlin and Tehran, eventually stumbling onto a plot that may indeed change the course of history. While the plot might be a bit farfetched, that’s not unusual in modern thrillers, and Christie sold me on the story’s credibility.
Alexsi isn’t a complex character and some of the other characters are little more than stereotypes, but that’s common in a thriller that depends on plot more than characterization. The plot earns points for departing from the mold for most spy stories. It also earns points for being smart. Not brilliant, but smart.
The focus on a Russian from the Middle East who infiltrates the Germans during World War II is something I haven’t seen before, and I’m always happy to find a spy novel that isn’t just a variation of stories that the masters of espionage novels have already told. The story moves quickly, particularly in the action scenes that bring the novel to its finish. The themes of betrayal on which all spy fiction depends are sharply developed. Shortcomings of characterization notwithstanding, A Single Spy is a winning contribution to the genre of spy fiction.