Dimitri “Dimi” Orlov, an up-and-coming professional tennis player whose physical prowess at a young age brought him to the attention of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), has become the SVRs and Russia’s greatest asset—a symbol of national athletic pride and a deadly assassin. When tasked to seduce the First Lady of the United States, Catherine Darlington, and enlist her aid in murdering her husband, the Russian-backed President that went back on his word, Dimi is forced to confront who he really is, what he’s become, and what, if any, semblance of a normal future he can have. On Dimi’s trail is Mitch Abramson, CIA agent and tennis fan, who’s the only one to connect Dimi’s travels on the ATP tour with targeted killings around the globe. As Mitch delves more into Dimi’s past, the line blurs between target and compatriot and soon Dimi, Mitch, and Catherine’s lives are irrevocably intertwined, with not just the President’s life at stake.
Burying the Dead is a psychological thriller that incorporates many of the subgenre’s trademark elements—struggles with identity and purpose, morally ambiguous characters/motivations, death, and even a MacGuffin or two—to varying degrees of success. With so many ingredients of the subgenre present, plus the setup and blurb, I expected an interesting game of cat and mouse, lover and liar, and a ratcheting up of suspense and danger. Unfortunately, more often than not the dialogue is stilted and bland, and in some cases, head scratching in its word choice. There are times when the prose and phrasings are clunky and/or grammatically or idiomatically off, making scenes or conversations awkward. Maybe this is simply a case of needing another round of edits combined with the formal, almost Regency style writing aesthetic throughout. Whatever the cause, it made a book touted to be a “ripped from the headlines” political intrigue less intriguing and more a soul-gazing, hand-wringing “Great Expectations” knock-off where Pip’s benefactor also grooms him to be an assassin.
One of the main reasons Burying the Dead failed to engage me is because the storyline tends to leap frog to developments, rather than either showing the progression of a development or indicating connections that occurred off-page. For example, Mitch and Dimi have only a handful of brief interactions, yet somehow become almost the best of friends after two meetings—the first wherein Dimi immediately pegs Mitch as a spy, and the second that’s a short exchange of “how terrible/what a world” platitudes about an assassination covered in the newspaper. The next time they meet, Mitch is suddenly embraced as Dimi’s true friend and they talk openly (and again, briefly) about who they are. What? Why? There are no interweaving threads for this shift in relationship to occur, especially on Dimi’s part. While Mitch has been following Dimi from tournament to tournament and visiting the people in his past, Dimi spares no real thoughts for Mitch; the narrative gives him no reason to. Additionally, as philosophical and reference heavy as the text is, it tries to incorporate portents and omens, but does so sometimes in a blinding, lampshading manner. One memorable instance occurs when Mitch follows a convenient connection to a two decades old case where he’s offered a treasure trove of information whose importance is ever so subtly conveyed by the “Wouldn’t it be funny if it all turned out to be related to what’s happened now?” closing line by the interviewee.
The writing style also does not complement the “ripped from the headlines” contemporary nature of the story being told. The book has an almost out of time atmosphere—shifting between a 19th century to a 1970ish feel, but never really feels current. This is particularly true in the manner in which Gouveia portrays autism (more on that later). I also can’t recall reading a recent contemporary book that dedicated so much of its pages and word count to building the backstory and character of its main protagonists that still manages to make them come across as wooden and almost caricatural more often than not. To put it in prose similar to the author’s: at times the people are as dry as ancient Egyptian papyrus, scorched under the relentless Gaza sun with neither shade nor oasis, other than the ghostly promise of a mirage to offer succor, etc., etc.
Dimi, Catherine, and Mitch feel more like props trying desperately to convey certain ideas, motifs, and existential questions than characters that organically grow in complexity and drive the narrative. While they don’t always feel quite so two-dimensional (by the midpoint, there’s simply too many words for them to accurately be described as such), even in their saddest, most human moments they still didn’t manage to draw me in to their world, thoughts, or emotions. For me, reading the book was like watching a play where I know the emotions are supposed to be consuming and intense (mostly because I’ve been told so), but the actors conveying them can’t help but overact—minimizing their effectiveness and making the observer all too aware that they are watching a play. With the story being focused on the characters’ inner thoughts and feelings and the “dance” between Mitch and Dimi being nonexistent, feeling no real connection to the characters is a serious detriment.
This sometimes ungainly and disconnected character/personality shifts in the narrative further alienated me from the flow of the story. For example, there is a poisoning early on that puts Dimi on Mitch’s radar with no real reason, clues, or narrative logic other than Mitch is good at connecting the dots; given these particular dots, Mitch is a Sherlock Holmes/Dr. House/Detective Goren combo level savant. The ease and convenience with which Mitch performs the minuscule amount of detective work he does might not have been be so bad if it was building him up to be a great agent. Instead, Mitch’s character is basically reduced to fanboy/stalker whose sole purpose seems to be to repeatedly muse on fan culture. As Mitch is an avid tennis enthusiast, amateur player, and huge fan of Dimi, he spends his time tracing Dimi’s history, in theory, to prove he’s an assassin but mostly just to get to know Dimi on Company-sponsored trips.
Catherine Darlington, the First Lady, is equally more symbolic than real. She’s the quintessential suffering heroine—standing steadfastly and loyally by her brutish, abusive husband and lamenting the trials of being a woman constantly overshadowed by the needs and drives of men. She is appropriately elegant, tragic, and able to perform the cognitive dissonance that allows her to believe a raging, brutal, wife-beating rapist is still the best man to lead the country. You know, for the economy. And Dimi is the appropriate archetypal tragic anti-hero. Raised to be a loyal killer for his country, who wants nothing more than to be his cover—a straight tennis champion. However, his character is the best developed of the three in that his inner turmoil is a bit more relatable and less emblematic than Catherine and Mitch’s.
Orphaned, rejected, sexually attracted to men, but closeted, Dimi desperately seeks to make a family wherever he can, most notably with his autistic “adopted” brother Alexey. Dimi believes he is doomed to love those who cannot love him back, personified by loving “someone who doesn’t know [he exists].” A love proven by his steadfast devotion to Alexey when they were children and the fact that he bought a home for Alexey and provided him with a housekeeper and aide when he was able. And here is where I had a major disconnect with the story due to the portrayal of Dimi’s love and is another way the story is far from modern. For while Dimi hires an aide for Alexey, he’s mostly there to feed him, bathe him, change his diapers, etc. Alexey’s room is padded like a cell in an institution and he spends his days in a fracking helmet. Really?!?! Dimi loves his brother so much, yet he doesn’t hire at least a behavioral therapist? Provide any support structures or educational systems? Dimi’s given “everything” to Alexey, mostly lives for Alexey, resents Alexey’s inability to ever connect with him, yet apparently hasn’t read a book published after the 1970s about caring for someone with autism? GTFOH.
So yes, our tragic hero, is very tragically blind and we spend time with him as he questions his life, his sexuality, his future, his unrequited love of his brother, and as he courts the equally tragic Catherine (of course), while being haunted by the apparition of an innocent woman he was tasked to murder. Beyond being a foreign agent tasked with killing the President, his courtship of Catherine is troubled because he mostly identifies as gay and even uses his mental spank-bank of men (dubbed “James”) to help him through the act when it finally occurs, but he loves the older woman (he thinks) and yearns to be sheltered in her motherly bosom and bask in her undying affections.
As a psychological thriller, Burying the Dead very much exemplifies the psychological and philosophical (evidenced as much in its writing style as its many literary references), but not so much on the thriller aspect. Maybe my expectations were too high or skewed, but I can’t help but feel like I was told I could have my pound of flesh without any of the blood and connective tissue that holds it together. Also, fair warning, this is not a romantic suspense. The only romantic elements are between Dimi and the First Lady and, in keeping with the tone, are restrained and star-crossed. So, unless you’re looking for fiction featuring a questioning assassin who gives some comfort and solace to an abused wife in the midst of a mission (complete with Jane Austen-esque missives), a CIA spy more friendly fanboy than Company agent, and a death that, while narratively sensible, still leaves an unpleasant aftertaste of the “burying your gays” trope, then you might want to give Burying the Dead a pass.