by Reggie Nadelson
Reviewed by Benjamin Moser
On a warm summer's day, cold is too depressing to think about -- which, Reggie Nadelson suggests in Londongrad (Walker & Company, $25), is what bad weather has in common with Russia, that vast, shambolic empire of thawing permafrost, radioactive sushi, and sleazy "businessmen" of the kind whose antics are at the center of Nadelson's latest Artie Cohen mystery. Cohen is a New York cop born in Moscow to a disaffected Jewish KGB agent, a background that gives Artie a permanent loathing of all things Russian. But he's still got a soft spot for the odd Russian, especially Tolya Sverdloff, who "behaves like one of those dumb-ass oligarchs," according to Sverdloff's sexy daughter, Valentina. "He buys big-time art. You know the joke about the oligarch who says I just got a tie that cost four hundred bucks and the other oligarch says, I paid six hundred for the same thing. Daddy buys and buys and buys."
Sverdloff's life moves frenetically through the bootleg archipelago of the new Russian elite: New York, London, Moscow, a world of platinum blondes, bodyguards, and spies that increasingly ensnares Cohen. Perhaps it's his memories of his childhood that make him reluctant to leave New York, but Artie has to fly to London when Valentina is killed in her Manhattan apartment.
"For Russians," Sverdloff tells him, "London is the bank, the offshore island, the money, and where is money is killing, where people are rich, criminals come." Artie breaks the news of Valentina's death to the oligarch, who heads back to Russia, the detective on his tail. Cohen can hardly recognize the place he left as a teenager, where some apartments are listed as "Stalin-era" and where he chats with a teenage girl on the bus from the airport who "could have been European, American, Australian, except that she was in love with her president."
Nadelson's steady pacing keeps the pages turning, and her knack for capturing the Geist of these places in a few words -- "Make it a magnum, shall we?" seems to sum up oligarchical Moscow -- keeps Londongrad bubbling, but the detective-story format overlays an ambitious novel that manages to trace the tentacles of an international underworld of increasingly palpable influence, while at the same time forcing us to confront uncomfortable moral questions of loyalty and honor. The book opens with that famous quote from E. M. Forster -- "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country" -- and it ends without quite letting us know which one Artie Cohen will choose.
Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's magazine and the author of Why This World.