In 1941 Shanghai, Sergei Borodin packed up a crate of important documents and ships it to his infant granddaughter, Nicola. For her safety during those unstable times, Nicola had been sent to the United States to live with her uncle, a British diplomat. The crate, however, went to her uncle’s home in Britain, and no one heard anything more about it. But 40 years later, the items in that crate have the potential to unlock mysteries that extend back to the death of the Romanovs and continue to influence events in the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia. Secret identities could be revealed and hidden treasures found, yet Nicola Ward, a 5th grade teacher in Maine, has no idea.
This 1989 Cold War thriller by Carolyn Hougan (set in 1981) takes its time getting to the action, but that’s OK. The potential secrets hinted at in the beginning and Hougan’s smooth writing and compelling characters are enough to keep the story interesting. Like her first novel, Shooting in the Dark, this book is a fun, diverting thriller with plenty of satisfying twists and turns. This book’s plot is more complex than that of her earlier novel, but I found it surprisingly easy to follow. The large cast of characters, each with his or her own back story, never posed a problem for me—and large casts almost always leave me a little lost at times, even in books I adore.
Shooting in the Dark involved lots of action, so I was surprised that after a few breath-taking moments in the first couple of chapters, most of this book involves people looking things up and finding things out and thinking about their lives and the best way to live them. Nicola is wrapped up in worries about her daughter, who appears to have anorexia. Neil Walker, the appraiser and former spy who’s researching the material in Nicola’s trunk, spends time among archives (this was pre-online research), but he also reflects on his past failings and wonders how to be a better dad to his son, who was badly, and perhaps permanently, injured in a car accident a year earlier. It is perhaps a little too predictable that the divorced Nicola and the widower Neil end up in a romance, and the scenes around their (ahem) courtship alternated between genuinely hot and … seriously, the car is still in motion, people, don’t be doing that now! I mean, really, there’s just no need for that. It wouldn’t have hurt if the pace had been kicked up a notch, but I mostly enjoyed the way the plot unfolded.
Another pleasure that I found in this book was Hougan’s use of locations. Neil lives just a few miles from my home, and I enjoyed following the characters’ paths around the book’s many DC and Northern Virginia locations. And stepping outside the DC area, I never thought I’d read a book that incorporated the kitschy monstrosity that is South of the Border, but this one does.
The time period could make the book feel dated, but because so much of the book involves historical events from throughout the 20th century, the whole book ends up feeling a little like historical fiction, rather than a contemporary thriller with flashbacks. The fact that the book is set almost 10 years earlier than its publication date probably helps with that, too. Even by 1989, when the Cold War was drawing to a close, some elements of the storyline probably wouldn’t have worked so well. And one passage toward the end is remarkably prescient and shows just how far back some of our current worries go:
Walker thought that none of them could understand how big and powerful the clandestine world was, or how it coexisted with the “real” world, a parallel but interactive universe. For one thing, they were inured to it, they took it for granted without seeing its pervasiveness. Even in ordinary life, they were continually under surveillance. Closed-circuit cameras recorded their forays into drugstores, banks, apartment buildings. Massive computers compiled data in their names, direct mail companies “profiled” them, then “targeted” them. The power company had recently requested his social security number. He’d made up a number. Why would the power company need anyone’s social security number? He didn’t like the thought of a computer being able to follow every line of his life, tie up every little loose strand of his existence, compile a huge, definitive dossier.
And all this before online tracking.