Micah Dalton, the lead character in David Stone’s series of espionage thrillers, is a stone cold killer (excuse the pun). And the job is starting to wear on him. At the start of Stone’s latest book, The Venetian Judgment, Dalton – a CIA “cleaner” whose connection to the agency is a little nebulous at present – is snuffing out the last remnants of a Serbian mafia gang that shot the women he loves and sent her into a coma. He is intent on following this revenge until the bitter end even if, and maybe preferably, if it means his own end as well.
But instead he finds a catharsis of sorts and throws himself into a new case. Accusations of treason and treachery are once again bringing chaos and destruction to the clandestine services section of the CIA. A retired and beloved code-breaker has been murdered in a particular gruesome fashion. And Dalton’s superior, head of clandestine ops, Deacon Cather is under suspicion of being a mole. Meanwhile, Dalton’s old nemesis Kiki Lujac is either dead or at the center of this new conspiracy.
To solve the mystery Dalton will have to survive long enough to find the answers. Doing so will take him from Venice to Greece, Turkey, and eventually back to Langley. The answers are tied up in the seemingly ancient history of the Cold War, but they will have deadly repercussions if left unchecked.
Fans of Stone and Dalton will enjoy the latest adventure with its typical blend of action, intrigue, violence, and tongue-in-cheek type gallows humor. The plot is a bit convoluted, but it is an entertaining read and there is a thread of political commentary running throughout for those who understand the debates involved.
More below (including “spoilers”).
As with all of Stones novels (see here and here), there is a lot going on. Stone likes to have numerous subplots and side characters. But when you get down to it there are really only two threads and one over-arching mystery. The over-arching mystery is whether or not there is a mole in the CIA and, if there is, who? The key term here is “confusion op” which sets up a sort of twist at the end.
This basic question, however, is not obvious from the start. Only as as events play out, and details are added piece by piece, do you get to see the question at the heart of the story. Stone’s love of complicated plot got away from him a bit here. At times readers can lose track of what the plot really is about.
There are, however, two entertaining story lines that come together to power the story. One involves Dalton’s search for explanations into two things: the grissly murder of the retired codebreaker in London and the supposed death of Kiki Lujac. This is really the action thread. Dalton is his usual calm, cool, and deadly self as he attempts to figure out who us behind things.
One nice side character is Dobri Levka a Latvian soldier of fortune type who gets caught up in Dalton’s investigation. But just as Dalton is about to clean up this particular mess, Levka makes the unconventional offer of helping Dalton. Suprised by the quick thinking Dalton accepts. And Levka turns out to be loyal despite the fact that Dalton killed his uncle (well, he was an angry ugly drunk, says Levka).
Levka adds a playful sense to the story and makes for a good sidekick for Dalton. The two men’s sense of humor work well together. And who couldn’t use a little extra muscle who happens to speak a number of languages and knows the terrain?
The second thread involves Lujac and the head of the codebreakers section Briony Keating. This is the suspense side of the thread. Stone plays out the relationship between Lujac and Keating for as long as he can all the while slowly filling in the backstory that connects them to the larger mystery. This aspect is well done. It really makes you want to keep reading. And it even provides the final bit of gallows humor at the novel’s end.
Tied into all of this with varying degrees of success are the Venona transcripts and the question of Soviet spies at the highest levels of American government during the Cold War. The mole question revolves around whether a highly placed aide to President Nixon gave information to the Soviets which allowed them to supply the North Vietnamese and help them retake the South knowing that Watergate would prevent Nixon/Ford from responding with the force that had brought the North to the negotiating table.
The subject of Soviet spies in American government has of course been the subject of a great deal of debate as has the nature of the Vietnam conflict and its conclusion. Stone is clearly on the side of significant penetration of American government by the Soviets and seems to be arguing, at least through his characters, that this espionage combined with the fatal weakening of Nixon led to the collapse of Vietnam and the devastation that followed. In other words, the military did their part but the civilians did not.
This is not all that surprising 1) a great deal of work has been done in this area since Cold War era records have slowly been opened up and the records have been on the side of the former “McCarthyites” more often than not. 2) Stone has given hints of his Right leaning perspective throughout the series with quips about liberal political leaders, etc.
At times this historiographical element adds a layer of suspense/intrigue but others it seems like a distraction; another layer on an already complex story. I also wonder if readers who know nothing about this history, and the debates surrounding them, will understand what is going on.
As noted above, however, fans of Stone and Dalton will want to read this latest adventure. And to my mind Stone has gotten better with each book. Dalton may be a typical unstoppable super-spy but he has a certain style and wit which makes for a nice twist.
And while Stone’s plots are always complex, some might say convoluted, I find them entertaining. And I found The Venetian Judgment to be the most suspenseful and fast paced of the three. If you are willing to suspend your disbelief (par for the course in this genre), and don’t mind high levels of violence, this series is certainly worth a read. As we head into spring and summer, they make great beach and/or airplane reading.
Note: while they are stand alone books in theory, I recommend reading the three books in order. Dalton and the side characters will make a lot more sense that way.