A Single Spy by William Christie follows Alexsi Ivanovich Smirnov, a Russian orphan forced to become a spy during WWII, as he navigates the war and his mission—one that could change the very course of history.
In 1936 in Soviet Azerbaijan, 16-year-old Alexsi—orphaned to a life of petty thievery—rides with the Shahsavan to survive and becomes a Muslim to be accepted in their ranks. In a pivotal skirmish between the Russians and the Shahsavan, he fights for his life.
Alexsi shoved the revolver in his face and pulled the trigger. The muzzle blast shocked him—he had never fired the pistol at night—and seemed to set the Russian on fire. The Russian fell backward over his legs. Alexsi frantically kicked him off so he could get up. As he did, he snatched up the budionovka hat with his free hand and swung the revolver around, ready to keep shooting.
But the noise of all the Russians on the hill firing their rifles was so deafening that his pistol shot had been swallowed up in it.
Alexsi makes a run for it and almost gets away, but he’s eventually cornered by the Russian secret police and taken to The Lubyanka, Moscow. The chapters in between his capture and being questioned are a bit tedious, with more than one cavity search and two knife stabbings. Finally, Grigory Petrovich Yakushev of The Main Directorate for State Security of the NKVD of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics gives him the lowdown:
“Your mission will be to actively help the Soviet government build a Communist society throughout the world. As such, you will have the chance to win the highest honors.” He paused and gave Alexsi a piercing stare. “Do you accept?”
Alexsi was certain a refusal would mean his death. “I accept.”
He picks the code name Dante, and just like that he’s being fed good food washed down with wine and supplied with threads that remind him of the Frog Prince from the Brothers Grimm. Set up in his own comfortable apartment with enough money to get him going, his makeover seems complete. A gopher, Sergei, is there to provide him guidance.
His first mission is to infiltrate a group of students at Moscow State University who’ve been pegged as traitors. Alexsi was handpicked for this because he has close ties to a student named Aida. Author Christie then takes us back to 1932 in Baku, Soviet Azerbaijan, for a vexing mixed bag of genre hopping.
When 13-year-old Alexsi is placed in an orphanage, he ends up fracturing the skulls of three boys while defending himself. He then meets Aida, who joins him on a food hunt with Alexsi demonstrating his lock-picking skills. Afterward, they touch on politics, including her family’s connection to the Russian leader. Aida is a deep, idealistic teen with a deep reserve.
These passages alone would have been enough to provide the emotional hook that cemented Alexsi’s present situation, but then the author tries to take it to another level by heading down the path of their sexual awakening as they engage in some heavy petting described in explicit detail over several pages. In a strange sort of turn, reading about these teenagers losing their “innocence” makes it feel like we the readers have become the spies in the spy novel. It’s a little off-key and would seem better placed in a lustful romance.
In any case, the main story regains its footing as we follow Alexsi on his mission at the university and—what I was looking forward to—discover if he ever develops a code of ethics to live by beyond a thief’s survival mechanism, first as a pawn of the Shahsavan and then the Russians. Read Mr. Christie’s A Single Spy to find the answer.
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David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.