Red Ink, Greg Dinallo

Pocket, 1994, 341 pages, C$28.50 hc, ISBN 0-671-73313-3

My, have times changed.

Fifteen years ago, nobody would have considered Russia a country in crisis. They were pointing nuclear missiles at most North American cities, and that was enough to stop most people from thinking objectively about a country that was struggling under a rigid bureaucracy, an inefficient economy and backward technological progress. Author Greg Dinallo himself, in 1988, penned a novel titled Rocket’s Red Glare which featured a dastardly Russia plan stemming from the Cuba crisis.

Of course, nobody could have a clear picture of the true state of the Ex-USSR given that nothing was really well-known about the country. No open media, no independent accounting, no glassnost.

Of course, we all know the major beats of the subsequent story; Chernobyl, the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, the 1991 coup in Moscow, the division of the USSR into independent countries… The true picture of the communist aftermath is finally clear and it’s not pretty. Now, Dinallo is looking at Russia again… and my have times changed.

Red Ink‘s protagonist Nikolai Katkov isn’t particularly sad to be rid of the old regime. An ex-gulag prisoner, Katkov is a freelance investigative reporter. He sees the new Russia through jaded eyes. As with most noir novels, Katkov is also down on his luck. By mid-novel, he’ll be stripped of most of what he hold dear.

Of course, it starts off innocently with a banal murder. Except that the victim is a high-banking government officer. Except that the victim was investigating high-stakes financial transactions. Except that he might or might not have been killed by a professional. Except that the trail points to the Russian mafiya. Except that Katkov’s article is rewritten and published under another byline. Except that Katkov is nearly gunned down…

The only thing missing is a love interest, and she quickly arrives as the sultry Gabriella Scotto, U.S. Treasury Special Agent. What is going on? Is her investigation tied into the murder?

Red Ink is, all things considered, an adequate thriller with enough quirks to make it interesting. The first-person narration is suitably cynical to add spice to the narrative, though this particularity fades as the novel goes on. The relation between Katkov and Scotto is handled maturely, with a flair that’s lacking in most Hollywood-inspired thrillers. Characterisation is strong, the writing is clear and -at least initially- compulsively readable. There are a few memorable scenes and the conclusion is far more interesting than could have been expected.

The first third of Red Ink is unfortunately much more fascinating than the remainder of the novel, promising more than what Dinallo eventually delivers. As Katkov travels to a more familiar environment (from our perspective), the book loses some of its charm, even if Katkov’s fish-out-of-water condition provides amusement. Simply put, Red Ink remains good, but isn’t special in its latter half.

Dinallo has always been an unconventional thriller writer, bringing sometimes uncomfortable elements in his fiction but usually building interesting payoffs. Red Ink is the best of his books yet, and Dinallo owes some of this success to the careful research he’s done about the Russia of the nineties. Red Ink is a good choice for an entertaining read… and proves that even if Russia has changed, it still offers considerable potential for all of those poor cold-war writers.

My, have times changed!

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