Thomas Ovans finds it easy to get into the spirit of a post-Cold War thriller by Maggie Hamand
Maggie Hamand’s Doctor Gavrilov is a thriller which is set in 1992, shortly after the break-up of the Soviet Union. The title character, Dmitry Gavrilov, is a Russian nuclear scientist living with his English wife, Katie, and their two small children in London where he is struggling to make a living as a technical translator. (Dmitry’s back story, including his meeting with Katie, is told in Hamand’s companion volume The Rocket Man.)
Dmitry Gavrilov is secretly approached both by the Libyan government, who want him to assist them in their clandestine nuclear programme, and also by the Russian secret service who want him to accept the Libyan offer but act as a double agent. He is at first extremely reluctant about these invitations; but in the end financial pressures force him into the dangerous course of taking up both of them. Naturally, subsequent events show that he was entirely right to be reluctant!
Besides Dmitry and Katie, the other principal character in the book is their London neighbour, Tim Finucan, whose work as an investigative journalist impinges in unexpected and unfortunate ways on Dmitry’s undercover work. Furthermore Tim’s previous acquaintance with (and growing romantic interest in) Katie turns out to be a catalyst for upheavals in Dmitry’s personal life.
In the first half of the book, the thrills are largely psychological. Hamand conveys very well the bleak and creeping hopelessness of Dmitry’s situation as he finds himself surrendering more and more autonomy to his Libyan and Russian controllers. We can sympathise with him as he tries to retain his dignity while being manipulated by handlers who regard him as little more than a pawn in a larger game. Physical danger and physical action play an increasing part in the second half of the story and the last sixty or so pages feature explosions, perilous escapes across frontiers, some potentially lethal exposure to radio-activity and a battery of gun shots. Hamand carries all this off with a good deal of panache.
The book is quite a compelling page-turner. As already mentioned, it is grimly enthralling to accompany Dmitry on the downward path into not one but two Faustian pacts. Hamand manages to give him sufficient humanity that we are inclined not to blame him overmuch for making some pretty irresponsible choices. Tim on the other hand, although a believable enough creation and essential to the narrative, is nothing like so sympathetic a character. I’m afraid I did find some of Katie’s behaviour a bit unconvincing – but here I have to remind myself that I too might do some unexpected things if my partner began to act as erratically as Dmitry. The numerous bit-players – journalists, scientists, security personnel and Katie’s stuffy parents – are well-sketched and serve their narrative purposes most effectively. I am also pleased to note that they, like the main characters, are given plausible lines to speak.
It is also worth saying that the technical background details about nuclear engineering seem well researched and make the story more persuasive.
All in all, this is a most enjoyable book and I hope it will not seem to be a spoiler if I say that the ending may leave open the welcome possibility of a third volume in the series …