It's 1992 and the countries (and people) that were behind the Iron Curtain are still trying to adjust to the new world order, which is a mind boggling idea, really. It's something I haven't thought much about since the early 90's -- and even then, I doubt I gave it much serious thought. But that's the every day surreal life of the people in this novel -- most are from Poland, some are from Russia, some from Serbia (oh, yeah and a few are from the States -- but they're not my focus at the moment). This alone makes The Fourth Courier different enough to take a glance at.
There've been a few unidentified men -- with indications that they might be Russian -- found murdered and mutilated (not necessarily in that order) in Warsaw. The last one showed traces of radioactivity (there's a chance the others did, too -- but the evidence is gone), and people start to worry about what's afoot. It's so worrying that the FBI sends someone (Agent Jay Porter) over to help the police investigate. The change in political realities is affecting the way the police operate, like every other aspect of society, but at least the basics are the same. Porter teams up with a Warsaw detective, but he also teams up with a CIA agent based in the US Embassy.
The CIA agent is focused on what these (possible) Russians are doing in Warsaw before being mutilated. Probably not at all coincidentally, a Serbian general visits the city the day before the bodies are found. There are several possibilities he's looking into -- the most benign involve narcotics trafficking, the worst involves small nuclear explosives.
The book is pitched as being this hybrid murder mystery/espionage novel in post-Cold War Poland -- and when it is, it's an interesting read. But I'm not convinced that's the book that Smith really wanted to write -- I'm sure it's not the one he wrote.
Jay Porter is in the early stages of divorce back home, and one of the first things he does when he lands is to hit on an attractive woman working for the airline. They go on a few dates, he spends the day with her parents, sister and brother-in-law. She's recently been divorced, too, but given the housing situation and economy, her ex-husband still lives with her and their adult son in the same apartment they shared while married. To say theirs is a complicated relationship is an understatement -- and Porter's only been in the country for a couple of days.
But that level of complication pales in comparison to the Serbian general. His sexuality/inclinations are beyond complicated -- and several layers of which are peeled back for us to examine as we try to figure him out. We also get into the sex life of a ranking police official, a criminal with ties to the police, the general and Porter's lady friend, the CIA agent, a complete stranger on a train and an ex-Soviet scientist. All of which is far too detailed for my (admittedly reserved) taste (although I've endured worse), many of which are gratuitous (one or two are useful for revealing character, but could've been dialed down and still achieved the same result).
If you ask me (and I guess, that's kind of what the point of this blog is -- and Smith did ask me, I have the emails to prove it), this is what he wanted to talk about: in the midst of the Cold War ruins to talk about these people -- the romances, the sex (there's a difference), the friendships, the shattered lives and psyches trying to reestablish themselves the way the countries were. It's just that every now and then he remembered he was supposed to be writing the murder mystery/espionage novel and would go run off and deal with some of that plot before getting back to the stuff he wanted to talk about.
More power to him, by the way -- it's hard to come up with a reason to get all these characters in a book in the first place. But having decided to tell the story about multiple murders and spies and whatnot, he could've acted like he cared a bit more about that.
The big espionage plot was pretty lazy and was resolved in an equally easy way. The murder mystery was resolved in a pretty unsatisfactory way and the investigation mainly happened "off screen." At one point someone attempts to frame a suspect for the killings -- it's possibly the worst, most obvious frame job that I've read. Inspector Gadget would've picked up on it without Penny and the Brain needing to help. When the psychological ground for the mutilation was revealed, I almost quit reading -- it was just too easy.
I did not, for one single second, believe any of Porter's reactions to what was going on in the US regarding his family. I could buy his banter with his secretary. I could accept his emotions in Warsaw (although some of it was a stretch), but not his emotional backstory. I thought the general's backstory was a bit over-wrought, but I could buy it. And I really had no problems with any of the Polish characters' emotional lives or backstories -- they all worked really well. If the supposed main stories were half- as well-developed as the personal/psychological/sexual stories/motivations/plotlines were, I'd be a lot more enthusiastic in my recommendation.
Before anyone goes off on me, saying that I just want the police procedural, or a crime novel that's not about anything beyond the murder, a glance around this site should disabuse you of that idea. I enjoy Crime/Thriller novels that have something to say about things that aren't the crimes in question -- but before I'll listen to anything else you have to say, you need to give me a Crime/Thriller that's worth paying attention to.
Smith can do subtle, he can do nuance, he can show rather than tell. But most of the time when given the opportunity to do any of that, he seemed to choose the opposite. There's enough skill in Smith's work that I'm going to give it 3 pretty unenthusiastic stars, but this book could've been so much better. It just didn't live up to the promise of it's very strong premise. If he'd stuck with the premise, he probably could've pulled off something clever and compelling. If he'd told the story he seemed to really want to -- it wouldn't have been my cup of tea, but it would've been good read. Instead, we're left with this pile of unfulfilled potential.
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the author and Skyhorse Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for this post -- thanks to all for this opportunity.