- - Thursday, April 20, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A SINGLE SPY

By William Christie

Minotaur, $25.99, 400 pages

Alexsi is a creation of and for the world of Joseph Stalin at its most terrifying. A practiced thief at 16 years old, he is captured by the communist NKVD, the law enforcement agency of the Soviet Union, and becomes a secret agent who is also a trained killer. Some of the most riveting chapters in this fascinating espionage thriller deal with his training.

Yet Alexsi never loses sight of his belief in an old Russian saying that “if you live among wolves you must act like a wolf.” He even tells Winston Churchill that when he is assigned to participate in a plot to kill the prime minister. And he never forgets his training because that is how he survives. His first love proves to be another secret agent and they betray each other.

In “A Single Spy,” William Christie has done a remarkable job of analyzing the psychology of a spy, especially one who lives in constant danger and accepts it. His Alexsi is a merciless killer and a formidable fighting man. Most of all he understands what he does and he is not motivated by patriotism or any kind of devotion to Russia. As Mr. Christie writes, Alexsi simply sees the world differently. “[H]e didn’t care a fig for Communism or Stalin or world revolution. He worked for them because he had to — he’d always done what he had to. They thought he was one of them; they’d put him in their special orphanage because he denounced his father and everyone who destroyed the Shultz family to the secret police. But he’d only done that because he wasn’t strong enough to kill them himself.”

He learns his lessons well and gains what passes for trust on the part of the ruthless Soviet machine and Stalin, who is the murderer in charge of more killings than Hitler, his Nazi counterpart.

Alexsi is so successful as a Russian secret agent that he becomes a German double agent for the Abwehr and is assigned a major part in a bold plan of attack at the Teheran conference (code named Eureka) between Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. The plan calls for the British prime minister to be killed, along with the kidnapping of the American leader.

It makes the book more intriguing that there is still speculation that such a scheme was in the works in 1943 and that double agents of all breeds were involved. According to the author, recently declassified intelligence supports the theory, and it strengthens the dramatic impact of an already stunning chronicle of what a spy can do. In this case it focuses on the meeting between Alexsi and Winston Churchill at the book’s climax, but the added detail of Churchill’s fascination with Alexsi’s observation about spies and lone wolves helps give the book its depth and contour. The flourish is as ingenious as it is plausible and it is well tailored to the deeply rooted cynicism of the book.

But it is the author’s observations about spycraft that carry the day: “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.”

William Christie is to be commended and congratulated for “A Single Spy,” a work that casts brutal light on the strange twilight world of spies, especially on one who indeed plays the role of the lone wolf. It is book that is difficult to put down and Alexsi, the spy at its center, is indeed a memorable creature even if he is part monster.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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