Reading the sequel to a successful novel is always a chancy proposition. Writers and publishers know it as “the curse of the second novel.” It’s one of those rules of thumb that may hold true much less often than believed. But it does seem valid in the case of Moscow Sting, the second of four novels about KGB Colonel Anna Resnikov by the pseudonymous former British intelligence officer who styles himself “Alex Dryden.” Dryden’s debut, Red to Black, was well received by critics, Moscow Sting much less so. And the reason isn’t hard to find.
Moscow Sting is a complex tale staged at colorful locations all across the United States, Europe, and Russia. The Russians have murdered Anna Resnikov’s lover, a former British intelligence officer named Finn, and they’re after Anna, too. The CIA and MI6, as well as the KGB and its latter-day manifestations (the FSB and SVR), all get into the act. They’re desperately trying to track down a British spy named Mikhail in Putin’s inner circle. But apparently no one (either in Russia or the West) knows who he is, since he insisted on dealing exclusively with Finn. And Finn’s dead.
Moscow Sting (Anna Resnikov #2) by Alex Dryden (2009) 370 pages @@@½ (3½ out of 5)
As MI6 sets out to kill Finn’s murderer, and Anna and her two-year-old son burrow in more deeply at a secret location, new players enter the scene. A CIA contractor, one of the many private intelligence agencies that have flourished in the years following 9/11, holds center stage. Its charismatic billionaire founder and chairman proves to be a worthy foil for Anna. Meanwhile, a mysterious assassin is picking off members of Putin’s cronies, the sivoliki.
There’s a good deal of action, with a mounting body count. But the plot revolves around a game of hide-and-seek that grows increasingly tedious as Anna Resnikov succeeds again and again in outsmarting and eluding not just the Russians who want to murder her as a traitor but the Americans and British who pretend to be her friends and protectors. Surely, a former British intelligence officer with a good agent and editor could have done better.
For additional reading
Four years after Moscow Sting was published, a former senior CIA officer named Jason Matthews released the first book in the Red Sparrow Trilogy, a series of three much better novels about another highly placed female KGB officer who goes over to the West:
- Red Sparrow (Authentic espionage tradecraft in this gripping novel by a CIA veteran)
- Palace of Treason (Nonstop action in the sequel to the bestseller Red Sparrow)
- The Kremlin’s Candidate (The gripping conclusion to the Red Sparrow Trilogy)
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- Joseph Kanon’s spy thrillers are superb
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