The Mercenary is an excellent Cold War thriller.

Even if you’re a fan of espionage fiction, you may not yet be familiar with the name Paul Vidich. You should be. Vidich writes spy novels in the grand tradition of Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and John le Carré. His historical espionage tales rank with those of his better-known contemporaries, Alan Furst and Joseph Kanon. And his rare talent for repopulating history with complex and credible characters is fully on display in his fourth novel, The Mercenary, a Cold War thriller set in the final years of the Soviet Union.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

It’s 1985. The “mercenary” of the title is Aleksander Garin, a former CIA officer who had been forced to leave the Agency six years earlier. The high-ranking KGB agent he was attempting to exfiltrate from the Soviet Union was captured and executed then. Since then, Garin has been working on contract from time to time. Suddenly, the CIA calls unexpectedly with a generous offer inviting him to return to Moscow to “handle” a senior KGB officer code-named Gambit. The agent’s handler, George Mueller, the CIA Station Chief in the city, had been blown and expelled from the country. Now Gambit was demanding to meet with Garin personally.

The Mercenary (George Mueller #3) by Paul Vidich (2021) 274 pages ★★★★★

An outstanding Cold War thriller

Once in Moscow, Garin initiates the perilous process of meeting with Gambit and negotiating a safe course through the distrustful staff of the CIA station. On all sides, his failure six years earlier returns to complicate his life. And Gambit has access to some of the KGB’s most closely held secrets, so the stakes couldn’t be higher. However, the price he sets to deliver those secrets reawakens Garin’s deepest fears. He must engineer Gambit’s exfiltration along with his wife and son—a feat the CIA has never managed to accomplish. And to complicate further an already daunting challenge, Garin is falling in love with a woman he stumbled across at a rendezvous with Gambit.

This ailing old Stalinist, Konstantin Chernenko, presided over the USSR for just 13 months before Mikhail Gorbachev became its chairman. Image: Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine

The historical background

As the USSR approached the seventieth anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the society that Josef Stalin had built on the rubble of a centuries-old tyranny and a blood-soaked Civil War was crumbling. The accumulated outrages and injustices have betrayed the ideals that motivated millions and now threaten to destabilize the state itself. Corruption, cynicism, and defeatism permeate the ranks of the government.

For many years, the Soviet government had been led by inflexible old men whose ability to confront the society’s problems was undermined by chronic illness, alcoholism, or both. First, Leonid Brezhnev (1906-82) succumbed to multiple causes related to his heavy smoking, drinking to excess, and addiction to sleeping pills and tranquilizers. Then KGB chief Yuri Andropov (1914-84) served as General Secretary for just fifteen months before dying of kidney failure. Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko (1911-85), held the office of General Secretary of the Communist Party for only thirteen months. He died of emphysema, hepatitis, and cirrhosis of the liver. And these were the fearsome men at the helm of the “Evil Empire.”

The events depicted in this outstanding Cold War thriller unfold in the final months of Chernenko’s life. Vidich deftly portrays the pessimism and black humor of the long-suffering Russian people, who were now saddled with a profoundly ill-managed system that strained to feed, clothe, and house them. It’s easy to understand the desperation that led Mikhail Gorbachev to undertake the dangerous reforms that characterized his stewardship of the Soviet state following Chernenko’s death.

This is one of The best Russian mysteries and thrillers.

I’ve reviewed four other Paul Vidich’s spy thrillers:

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