New Vessel. Feb. 2021. 242p. ISBN 9781939931900. $22.95. THRILLER
Lebedev’s fourth novel to be published in English (following Oblivion, The Year of the Comet, and The Goose Fritz) affirms his emergence as one of Russia’s leading writers. In some nebulous period following the demise of the Soviet Union, a defector collapses suddenly in a bustling restaurant. Everyone suspects poisoning, but Kalitin, a scientist now living in seclusion somewhere in the West, knows instantly that the cause is Neophyte, a virulent chemical weapon he developed that kills anyone in its proximity and evaporates without detection. In the post–Cold War era, Kalitin, who still has a smuggled stash of his life’s work in his possession, realizes that Russian authorities have begun to use Neophyte to disappear its enemies and defectors. What he doesn’t know is that an ex-military commando named Shershnev has already been dispatched to find Kalitin, retrieve the stolen Neophyte, and use it on its creator. The novel alternates between the two men, both reflecting on their past histories as agents of death, as they move inexorably toward an underwhelming confrontation.
VERDICT Though readers will be disappointed if they expect a fast-paced cat-and-mouse chase, Lebedev’s rich and ruminative writing raises important questions about the ethics and personal costs of perpetrating anonymous mass murder.
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