Cover image of "Fellowship of Fear," a novel about Soviet spies

How far can a writer push the bounds of credibility in a thriller? If we look at the work of authors whose protagonists resemble superheroes more than real people — Ian Fleming, for example, or Daniel Silva, to cite a contemporary example — we realize that we’ve left the realm of reality. Nobody could seriously pretend that James Bond or Gabriel Allon is a real person. But in more conventional crime and espionage novels, featuring protagonists with obvious human failings, we expect a lot more respect for the real world. At least, I do! Certainly, I was anticipating that when I turned to Fellowship of Fear, the inaugural volume in Aaron Elkins’ series featuring academic anthropologist Gideon Oliver. I didn’t find it.

A likely story!

Elkins’ hero, Gideon Oliver, is a reasonably believable character. He certainly has his faults, even if he displays an unnatural skill at martial arts and a prodigious memory; after all, those are attributes I’ve actually observed among people I’ve known. The problem in Fellowship of Fear lies in the plot. The tale Elkins weaves is what my grandmother would have called “a likely story!,” meaning, of course, that it’s anything but.

Fellowship of Fear (Gideon Oliver #1) by Aaron Elkins ★★★☆☆

A physical anthropologist to the rescue?

Professor Oliver  is fresh from a faculty position at what appears to be a prestigious university in Northern California when he arrives in Germany for a guest gig teaching at American military bases in Europe. There, he quickly finds himself caught up in what is frequently alluded to — but never fully described — as a mysterious Soviet plot. (The book was published in 1982, when the USSR was still alive and kicking.) Somehow, Soviet agents are obtaining and smuggling sensitive information about U.S. military capabilities from American bases across the continent, which, once they have the last bits of information in hand, will lead in some unstated fashion to . . . something horrible. Really, really horrible. We can only imagine what catastrophe will befall the hapless Americans if U.S. intelligence doesn’t prevent those last bits of information to fall into Russian hands! As I said, “a likely story!”

About the author

Aaron Elkins has written seventeen novels in the Gideon Oliver series as well as fifteen other mysteries and thrillers. Old Bones, the fourth book in the Gideon Oliver series, won the Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel. Despite my misgivings, I’ll read the book in hopes it’s enough better than Fellowship of Fear to be worthy of that award.

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