A Single Spy, by William Christie
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
1936. Soviet Azerbaijan. Alexsi, in flight from the violence of an orphanage since the age of thirteen, is living on the streets of Baku when he falls in with a gang of tribesmen who live by smuggling goods over the border between the Soviet Union and Iran. “After a few trips he had more rubles hidden away than most party bosses in the Soviet Union, let along sixteen-year-olds.” Thus opens William Christie‘s gripping espionage novel, A Single Spy, his eighth book.
Alexsi is no ordinary Azeri teenager: he is educating himself by reading books in libraries; he speaks Russian, Persian, German, and some English; and he is a resourceful and ruthless fighter who carries a knife hidden away in his clothing. Then, while reading at the Baku General Library he is seized by Soviet secret police (NKVD), tossed into a crowded railcar, and shipped off to Moscow. There, after days of deprivation in the depths of the Lubyanka, he is taken to be interrogated by a humorless older man with an air of authority. The man’s name is Lukashev, and he is senior NKVD officer.
Lukashev poses a choice to Alexsi: either enter training as a Soviet spy or face execution for his crimes—which, of course, is no choice at all. Thus the young man enters adulthood through a grueling, months-long education in spycraft and survival skills. Following a real-world test in Moscow infiltrating a group of dissident students, Alexsi learns about the assignment for which he has been so carefully selected: he is to go undercover in Germany, impersonating a childhood friend with an uncle in Munich who is a high-ranking Nazi diplomat. As the Nazi’s long-lost nephew, whom he’d last seen as an infant, Alexsi is to worm his way into the Nazi world and seek out ways to gain access to valuable secrets. Lukashev, counting on Alexsi’s resourcefulness, tells him, “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.”
In A Single Spy, we follow Alexsi’s life from 1932, when he was an abused child in an Azeri village, to 1943, as a double agent working for the Soviets within the Abwehr. The action rockets from Azerbaijan to the Iran to the USSR to Germany, then to Switzerland and Turkey en route back to Iran. Christie paints a convincing picture of every location where he sets his story, and he steadily builds suspense toward a climax full of surprises. His command of details about the German military in World War II is impressive. The book contains information I’ve read nowhere else about German weaponry and the organization of the German general staff. It’s an impressive performance. Christie’s tale is grounded in history, hinging on two well-established facts. First, though Soviet spies and Winston Churchill himself informed Stalin well in advance of the German invasion, the Soviet leader refused to believe them—with millions of Russians dying as a result. And the Nazis did mount an elaborate (and of course unsuccessful) plot to assassinate Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin when they met at the Tehran Conference late in 1943. Christie seems to get it all right.
Recently, I posted an article entitled “My 10 favorite espionage novels.” You can find it here.