In This Spy Novel, Business Is Very Much Personal

ILIUM, by Lea Carpenter

The end of the Cold War may have been a godsend for the world, but it sure was a buzzkill for spy novelists. Once upon a time, the Soviet Union and its K.G.B. operatives were boogeymen that filled lengthy library shelves, and John le Carré, Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum got generations of readers addicted to stories about them. Now, thanks in part to Vladimir Putin, the K.G.B. officer and aspiring Bond villain who ascended to President of Russia — a guy who, before invading Ukraine, was accused of executing an adversary with radioactive tea — the Russian boogeymen have returned.

Lea Carpenter clearly knows the world of espionage well. Her books, particularly her 2018 novel, “Red, White, Blue,”are rich with the nomenclature of intelligence and undercover operations. But they are not, by design, page-turners. They are character studies of newbies thrust suddenly into the twilight world of special ops and fake identities, and the people they think they know are, in fact, mysteries themselves.

On the surface, Carpenter’s new novel, “Ilium,” is a tale of a C.I.A.-led plan to assassinate a Russian, “one of the most decorated and in-demand killers of his generation … his name spoken in hushed, rageful tones.” Now, “blessed by a series of increasingly powerful admirers,” he’s a 50-something oligarch living in an elegant but well-protected compound on a slim peninsula off Bordeaux, going by the name Edouard. The plot to execute him, however, is what Hitchcock might have called a MacGuffin: an element of the story that feels critical, but will soon prove to be merely the way into something deeper and more interesting.

Enter our unnamed British narrator, a woman barely 21, who comes from limited means. Her mother is the personal assistant to a wealthy widow, but “‘assistant’ was a euphemism for housekeeper.” Our narrator confesses to “placing pins in maps … New Caledonia, Cappadocia, Saint Petersburg,” planning someday to leave behind her family’s “gray lives and enter a world of color, romance.” She hungers to be the sort of woman who “wouldn’t look longingly at maps. She would take risks.”

She will, it turns out, be the perfect asset to infiltrate Edouard’s French compound, but it’s not simply because of her nature. She has a physical attribute that I would be unsporting to share in a review, and when she’s spotted by a 50-something C.I.A. agent named Marcus in Trafalgar Square, the recruitment begins. “I was the perfect one for the job,” she admits. “Not only did I look the part, I was … what every case officer dreams to find in an asset: naïve, no strong ties, poor. I didn’t even know myself.”Her infiltration is the first step in Operation Ilium.

Years before meeting the narrator, Marcus acquired the London home where her mother once worked, and the recruitment, either by destiny or design, becomes a whirlwind romance. She presumes her new boyfriend, and quickly her new husband, is simply a wealthy businessman. Nope. Soon after their tiny wedding in Mallorca, while honeymooning in Croatia, he drops two bombshells on her. He needs her to pose as an art critic who can visit Edouard’s French estate and provide reconnaissance on the property. Also: Marcus is dying.

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