Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Paul Vidich has a keen mind for weaving together complex and captivating espionage stories, and in The Mercenary he takes us towards the end of the Cold War, a time of uncertainty and shifting allegiances. The story follows a KGB agent who got his hands on some top secret weapons intelligence and is attempting to get exfiltrated by the CIA. They’ve taken up the task, but are cautious in their approach, fearing he might be playing a game a lot more complex than he’s letting on.
Table of contents
Paul Vidich Brews an Intelligence War
The Cold War was a remarkable period in human history for a number of reasons, including being perhaps the first of its kind and the alternative battlefield it was fought on. While military equipment, soldiers and their commanders generally decide the outcome of wars, in this case it was contested largely by intelligence and counterintelligence agents, a strange world Paul Vidich plunges us into with his novel The Mercenary.
Taking us to 1985, we are presented with a Soviet Union in a state of impending reformation, shifting internally in untold ways, still presented a very real competitor on the world stage from the point of view of the United States. Defectors from the Soviet side have been far and few in-between for the CIA, but a recent arrival may just land them the gold ticket they’ve been searching for.
A senior KGB officer, only known by his code name GAMBIT, has approached the CIA Moscow Station chief with extremely valuable top secret military weapons intelligence, which he is prepared to hand over in exchange for an exfiltration. Additionally, he demands to be handled by a former KGB officer who once defected to the American side, Alex Garin.
Though the CIA has never managed to execute a successful exfiltration from the Soviet Union, they cannot afford to pass up the opportunity presented to them by GAMBIT, even if they trust neither him nor Garin. The secrets in his possession could very well end the Cold War, and so the operation is given the green light.
Though Garin seems to be gaining GAMBIT’s trust, the man remains a closed book, with nobody being certain as to his motivations. Is he a simple mercenary making the most of the situation he found himself in, or is he playing a deep double game while hiding well-kept secrets? Where do his allegiances truly lie? As the net closes in on them, Garin makes a decision threatening to compromise the whole operation, setting in motion a carousel of intrigue and betrayal promising to end badly for all involved.
The Motivation Behind Defection in The Mercenary
Accounts from real spies are, all things considered, far and few in-between, and even then, how can we ever be certain of their full authenticity when taking into account the nature of their authors? People who engage in espionage are a rare breed, more often than not with complicated inner worlds and motivations we can only guess at.
Despite their small numbers, these people have quite often decided the outcome of conflicts, if not outright wars, and we can’t help but be fascinated with them and the shaded world they inhabit, forbidden to us mere mortals. Limited in our resources, in order to try and understand them we also turn to fiction, and I think few authors have done as thorough of a job as Paul Vidich in The Mercenary when it comes to describing the various elements driving spies to do what they do.
In my opinion, the heart of any espionage novel is centred in its characters, and they’re the aspect of the story the author dedicates the most of his time to, an approach which, it goes without saying, I wholeheartedly approve of. If we are to become captivated with and appreciate a human drama painted in political colours, we must first and foremost understand its participants.
As far as the main characters are concerned, I came away from the book feeling like I had drilled into the depths of their souls, to the very core of what makes them who they are, what prods them to move onward and commit to their life choices. While they might not be real people, Paul Vidich‘s understanding of human psychology is commendable indeed, allowing them to appear as real as beings of flesh and blood, at least so long as one is immersed in the story.
The courtesy extended to the main characters is largely also given to the supporting cast, and while I can’t say we get to peer into the mind of every single person, they are brought to life through concise descriptions, meaningful actions and cleverly-written dialogue. They all fit perfectly into their designated roles, and together they play a big part in making the story believable.
Frantic Espionage Games
With an extensively-developed and captivating cast of characters to support it, the story doesn’t take very long to pick up the pace, taking us on a wild roller-coaster in 1980s Moscow. Before talking about the plot itself, I do want to say that I found Paul Vidich‘s depiction of the Soviet Union to be fairly reasonable and respectful, and while he does seem in favour of sacrificing historical accuracy for the sake of the story where necessary, It’s never anything egregious nor unjustified.
With this being said, The Mercenary is one of those espionage thrillers where we’re never certain who can be trusted, and to what extent. While there are a few characters whose subversive intentions were a little too obvious, for the most part I had the sensation danger was lurking around every corner, preparing to strike from the place least expected.
This sense of tension is quite constant throughout the whole book, and even heightened in the second half as the noose begins to tighten around the necks of our protagonists. The depth of the spy games being played here are quite reminiscent of John le Carré at the peak of his form, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Paul Vidich took inspiration from him.
One aspect of the plot I’d like to comment on is how believable the actions of the characters are in relation to whatever circumstances they might be facing. In other words, the people in this story act like real people would, and never once did I find myself scratching my head at a character’s actions or decisions. The author successfully avoided the pitfall of forcing the story along by making one of his creations act out of character, and the end result is yet another element elevating the book above its peers.
Finally, by following the development of the intrigue we’re also granted a valuable window into the work of intelligence services, and I have no doubt the author was thorough in his research, largely because of how well it matches up with my own. He describes with engrossing passion the countless tiny cogs making up the whole imposing mechanism, shedding just a tiny bit more light on a realm likely bound to shadows and secrecy forever.
|288||Pegasus Crime||Feb. 2 2021||978-1643136202|
The Final Verdict
The Mercenary by Paul Vidich is a top-notch historical espionage thriller, presenting a well-researched, quick and clever plot supported by one of most carefully and intelligently-depicted cast of characters I’ve seen in a while. In my opinion, it matches up to the great classics of the genre, and will one day find its place among them.
If you’re in search of a Cold War spy novel reminiscent of John le Carré and with a plot that’ll keep you glued from start to finish, then this book is one I definitely think you should pick up.
Paul Vidich is a former senior executive in the entertainment industry who has more recently become a full-time author, writing successful novels including The Mercenary, The Coldest Warrior, which was shortlisted for the UK’s Staunch Prize and chosen as a Notable Selection of 2020 by CrimeReads, The Honorable Man and The Matchmaker.