Brent Ghelfi,
The Burning Lake
(Poisoned Pen, 2011)

Colonel Alexei Volkovoy, often called Volk, works for the Russian government. His job title? Who knows? The agency or department for whom he works? That's another mystery. Volk is not even sure of the answers. The bottom line, though, is that he solves problems -- sometimes ruthlessly.

Volk lives with a journalist named Valya, and he loves her. But he once loved a journalist named Katarina Mironova, whom everyone called Kato. At the start of this story, Volk learns that Kato's body was found in a shallow grave in Chechnya, along with three other bodies. He vows to find out who killed her, but that is complicated by two factors: many people in the Russian government will not mourn Kato's death, as she was good at uncovering secrets the government wanted left secret; and Volk was one of Kato's sources, and his superiors might want him to disappear if that came out. And then there is Valya, who does not know about Kato.

Meanwhile, an ex-military man named Grayson Stone, who owns a private security company called Graystone, based in Las Vegas, gets mixed up in the mystery of two Russian smugglers killed in the desert near Vegas. As he digs into that mystery, and Volk digs into who killed Kato, their lives are on a collision course.

Will we find out who killed Kato, and why? What does the book's title refer to? What do the two mysteries have to do with each other? How are the French, American and Russian governments involved in all of this? Before we find out, Volk and Stone will be doing some traveling, and both come close to being killed.

The characters are well-developed, but none of them are really likeable. Volk and Stones could both be seen as protagonists, but I would not want either as a neighbor, or as an enemy. Either could be a good villain. The pace of the book is good, but the two stories, before they begin to converge, give the book a disjointed feel, and I almost gave up on it. Also, this book is not for the squeamish, as there is a lot of brutality in it, and the author pulls no punches in describing it.

While this is the fourth Volk novel by this author, I had not read the other three, and I had no trouble following it. The book is written well, from a technical point of view, with very few editing issues. I found the two disparate but converging stories initially hard to follow, but other readers might not.

book review by
Chris McCallister

30 July 2011

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