An Agent of Deceit, by Chris Morgan Jones, Mantle, RRP£16.99, 352 pages
In cold war times, the barons of Russian power remained mysterious and menacing behind Kremlin walls. Nikita Khrushchev startled western onlookers when he banged his shoe on his UN desk. Stories filtered out of Leonid Brezhnev’s love of racy sports cars. But mostly, Soviet leaders were glowering, grey figures of state, rarely glimpsed.
Today powerful – and very rich – Russians are visible everywhere in the west. They fuel the property market in London’s smartest streets, their yachts crowd the marinas of Marbella and Monaco and their companies float on our stock exchanges.
Yet this familiarity has far from dispelled the aura of mystery and menace that surrounds some of the new Russian elite. They may not pose the apocalyptic threat of the old Soviet power-brokers but the murky, intertwined and often violent world of Russian government and business has made them uncomfortable partners.
Mostly, the west happily takes their money, not caring to ask too many questions about where it came from. Captive lawyers and PR firms are deployed to fend off anyone who does and the long list of murdered Russian journalists is a chilling warning to those minded to press the issue.
This new super-wealthy Russian power class, however, is fertile ground for novelists; the oligarch has provided a ready replacement for cold war espionage in what publishers call “the international spy thriller genre”. Fiction can also shed light on activities that in real life are protected by a combination of lawyers, guns and money, to echo the words of the late Warren Zevon.
It certainly provides a dynamic setting for An Agent of Deceit, a first novel by Chris Morgan Jones. Morgan Jones spent a decade working for Kroll, the private intelligence agency, where his clients apparently included Russian oligarchs.
His book tells the story of an attempt by an agent of a Kroll-like firm to expose and bring down Konstantin Malin, a corrupt senior official in Moscow who has built a private fortune skimming oil revenues and laundering the proceeds through a spider’s web of international companies and funds.
The agent, Ben Webster, is hired for an improbable sum by a shady Greek businessman who has been crossed on a business deal by Malin. Webster has his own agenda: in a previous life as a foreign correspondent in Russia he witnessed the murder of a female Russian colleague who asked too many questions. He suspects Malin was implicated and wants retribution.
The means to get Malin is via his middle-aged Anglo-Dutch flunky Richard Lock, who runs all Malin’s international front companies. Lock is vulnerable because he has tired of his life of lies and wants out.
Morgan Jones builds the tale nicely as he moves the action from Russia to the south of France, London and on to a climax in Berlin. There are some good cameos, notably Lock’s girlfriend Oksana, who coolly drops him the moment she senses he is damaged goods. But the only two characters who are really developed are Webster and Lock, both outsiders in the world of Russian intrigue. Malin is off-stage for most of the book and is a largely one-dimensional figure. He is described as “big, solid, like a Russian wrestler in retirement”. He “never seemed to blink but nor did he stare”. Only at the very end of the book do we begin to hear his voice or gain any sense of complexity behind the thuggish image but by then it is too late.
By choosing this subject matter, Morgan Jones almost inevitably invites comparison with John le Carré. In fact, his publishers are trumpeting this in their marketing, which is a double-edged sword for a first-time writer. This is especially so as Le Carré’s most recent novel, Our Kind of Traitor, deals with very similar material: an international money laundering network whose Russian mastermind falls out with his ultimate controllers in Moscow and tries to defect. Le Carré puts the colourful Dima, the would-be defector, at the centre of his tale and builds a compelling picture of the gilded but poisonous life of a crooked “minigarch” and his family. An Agent of Deceit lacks this dimension, however, and is weaker for it.
But Morgan Jones weaves an engaging narrative that, through Lock particularly, confronts the dilemma of the west’s engagement with dubious characters and companies – and not just those from the former Soviet Union. It is an issue with which many institutions have been grappling lately in places such as Libya. We learn that over 15 years, Lock has created a highly sophisticated, global financial structure dealing in billions. But when he comes to betray his master, he realises he has turned such a blind eye to the true source of the funds upon which he himself has grown rich that he has no “killer” evidence on his boss – and nor does he know how far Malin’s influence reaches.
An Agent of Deceit is a worthy entry to the long line of spy yarns, and a reminder of how little we still know of wealth and power in Russia, for all the public visibility of the 21st-century oligarchs.
Hugh Carnegy is the FT’s executive editor