"A Darker Place" (G.P. Putnams Sons, 337 pages, $26.95), by Jack Higgins: If Audie Murphy had morphed into, say, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, he'd have been Alexander Kurbsky, central character of Jack Higgins' latest thriller, "A Darker Place."
Kurbsky is a world-renowned writer in his late 30s, a Russian veteran of both the Afghan and Chechen wars. He's treated well by Putin's post-Communist regime; only, he feels like "their Russian Frankenstein ... led out like a bear on a chain to astonish the world and help Mother Russia seem great again."
So, he defects to England. But he's as much Proteus as Prometheus; he becomes unrecognizable after an extreme makeover. And he's still working for the Russians, who have a major hold on him: His sister Tania, who he thought died in 1989 amid anti-war protests, is still alive. She's being held in a Siberian gulag, and she just might get out, maybe — as long as he infiltrates the British prime minister's "private army" and offers juicy intelligence to the guys still holding him on a chain.
"A Darker Place" is tenanted by several characters whom Higgins fleshes out well with flashbacks.
Wheelchair-bound Roper, a computer surveillance whiz, had a whole career defusing bombs in Northern Ireland, giving what might have been a nerdy archetype an encyclopedia full of street smarts.
But some fans may be disappointed that Sean Dillon, one of Higgins' recurring stalwarts, recedes into being little more than a background character. (Dillon's girlfriend, Monica Starling, sees more action in this story.)
The handsome, brooding Kurbsky himself is drawn as more than a tremendous machine who can kill efficiently and write beautifully. He's reunited with an aunt, Svetlana, whom he deeply loves. She defected long ago and was like a mother to him when he spent time with her in London during his teen years. Upon his return, Svetlana has a loyal and loving house mate and friend, Katya, a painter and set designer who devises the transformation that makes Kurbsky look like he's undergoing chemotherapy; she starts to fall for him — and figures there's much more to him than meets her eye and heart.
At age 79 and after some 60 books, Higgins may have lost a step or two. Still, this dialogue-heavy, cinematically crafted novel pulls you along like the surprisingly strong current of the Thames River, where the climactic scenes take place.
Sadly, those scenes feel a little pat and predictable. (Will the British and Israeli prime ministers, U.S. vice president and head of the Palestinians really get blown up on a sitting-duck ship? Hmm, probably not.)
The best-selling author, whose works include "The Eagle Has Landed," also infuses the book with a timely edginess — the prospects of a peace agreement for Gaza. Then again, given recent events, that notion seems like fantasy.