1992, Warsaw, Poland
FBI Agent Jay Porter is called in to assist on a Polish serial murder case when three bodies are found shot and dumped by the river. It appears the victims were smuggling nuclear material, most likely out of Russia, and the threat means Jay’s experience is helpful before the situation becomes an international crisis. When a fourth body is found, that of a Russian scientist with bomb-making skills, the situation becomes even more dire, especially as it seems likely the man brought a bomb into Poland with him. Working with the Polish authorities, as well as CIA agent Kurt Crawford, Jay must find out who is behind the murders, along with the location of the bomb, before it’s too late.
So let me start off here by clarifying that this story is not a romance, but a historical thriller. I chose this one because the blurb mentions that the book “brings together a straight white FBI agent and gay black CIA officer as they team up to uncover a gruesome plot” and the book was pitched to me by the author as one where the “gay factor is key to solving the case.” So while this isn’t our normal fare, I thought it might be interesting to explore a fiction story that featured a prominent gay character, especially one that is a historical set in Poland soon after the fall of Communism. However, I will say that both the blurb and the pitch kind of overstate things as these guys don’t really “team up” as Jay is very much the main character and lead investigator here and Kurt, our CIA agent, is one of many side characters. He does, in fact, play a key role in breaking the case (as do others), but the so-called “gay factor” boils down to him seducing a male suspect for evidence (something that doesn’t actually require one to be gay, fwiw). I guess I was expecting him being gay to play a more significant role in the story, as well as to get more of an exploration of his character, particularly as a gay (and black) man living in post-Communist Poland. Now, none of this is necessarily a negative reflection on the book (aside from perhaps the blurb overstating Kurt’s importance to the story) and I didn’t factor that into my rating, but be aware this doesn’t really offer much of an LGBTQ focus from the story if that is what you are after.
As for the story itself, I found the setting and time period particularly interesting, and I think Smith explores it well. The Communist era has recently ended and Poland is ostensibly free with an open economy, but the reality on the ground is much bleaker. There are many who are poor and living in terrible conditions, and there is not much hope of upward mobility and real change for most citizens. Smith really paints a great picture here, both of the city and its people, that adds a lot to the story.
I also enjoyed the way Smith sets up a lot of different threads and pulls them all together into unexpected connections. The story starts out somewhat slowly as a host of characters are introduced and we get to know each of them individually. Then suddenly we start to see connections between seemingly unrelated people, and this whole web appears where all the pieces fit together in ways I never guessed. I enjoyed the fact that even by the end, I still found myself surprised each time I realized how two characters fit together in ways I didn’t see coming. So Smith puts all the pieces of the story together really well here.
Aside from the slow start, the author’s writing style just didn’t really work for me. I found things kind of clunky at times, with a lot of telling rather than showing. This held true for both the dialog and narration, and it ended up taking away a lot of the suspense and intensity for me. There were so many places where things are just laid out rather than letting the reader experience them, and even at the climax, the story never took on the excitement or tension I was expecting from a thriller. The dialog also had an awkwardness at times, perhaps also due to the telling versus showing problem. I also found the POV to be sometimes a little off, which led to confusion. While the chapters are told from the POVs of various characters, sometimes they would know things that didn’t make sense from their viewpoint. For example, a character would meet someone for the first time and the narration would indicate the person’s name before they were told. So I found myself at times confused about the POV, especially since the viewpoints changed regularly, and having to go back and reread to follow along.
I’ll also say I didn’t love the depiction of women here. They are almost all viewed in a sexual light (either their positive or negative qualities) and often their character development is very focused on the men that surround them. Even the “femme fatale” of the story, a woman who starts out very strong, ends up boiling down largely to her sexual relationship with a key player, and her character’s story arc very much revolves around men and their decisions, rather than having her own agency.
Overall, I found this an interesting story and I think Smith makes great use of the time period and the setting. The way the various characters interconnect is really clever and I appreciated watching all the pieces come together. I found the writing style didn’t really work for me and it slowed down the intensity and excitement of the story. That said, if you are looking for a suspense story with some interesting twists and a unique setting, this may be worth a try.