Trojan Horse: a Kolya Petrov thriller, by S. Lee Manning
When the villain in a novel is a descendant of Vlad the Impaler, you know there will be some medieval-style intimidation and retribution taking place. The time and place of the story, however, are modern, with computer technology and the opportunity for hacking playing a featured role in the plot. In contrast to the cruel impaler, the protagonist is Kolya Petrov, a likable Russian Jewish immigrant to the United States, who plays jazz piano when he isn’t working on something at the Executive Covert Agency (ECA) where he is a spy. The ECA bears a resemblance to the CIA, with the agents trying to figure out who might be a mole in the organization, leaking information to terrorists who want to destroy nuclear power plants.
Cuza is the “bad guy,” willing to impale anyone who is a threat, and when several ECA agents are killed by Cuza, they send Petrov to try to eliminate him, even though it may end up being a suicide mission. Cuza lives in a mansion in Romania, where he can carry out most of his activities away from any prying eyes. The agency suspects that Cuza is the one behind the threat to the nuclear plants, and they want Petrov to install a “Trojan horse” virus on Cuza’s computer so that all of his activity can be tracked, and so the mole within their organization can be routed out. The woman in charge of the ECA assumes that the person sent on this mission will likely not return alive, and she chooses Petrov in part because he has no wife or children. Petrov is sent over to Romania on the spying assignment, even though the agency knows that the blatantly antisemitic Cuza will be even more willing to kill Petrov because he is Jewish. Inside Cuza’s mansion, it is no surprise that his henchmen are totally loyal to him and will kill without question. The issue of loyalty is less comfortable on the American side, since Petrov’s supervisors are willing to sacrifice him in order to get the information they need about Cuza and his plans.
Complicating Petrov’s life is the fact that he has a fiancée. Her family thinks he is an accountant for the IRS, since his real job as a spy cannot be revealed. The romance provides a break from the tension of the main story and provides some humorous scenes of their daily life. One morning they joke around about having already said goodbye the night before, a parting which the reader already knows will probably be their last. After being sent to Romania, Petrov realizes only after he is captured by Cuza, that he has been set up by his own agency. He has to grapple with the choice of saving his and his fiancée’s lives, or stopping the plot that could kill people all over the world.
I appreciated that Manning doesn’t let the plot get too convoluted with side plot twists, which is a temptation when writing an espionage novel. I listened to an interview with the author, and she said her first draft was 850 pages long. Unlike some authors who are too fond of their own writing to remove anything, she was able to remove extraneous material, and the final product has a tight plot, told in 322 pages.
Prior to writing fiction, Manning worked as an editor of law publications and later as an attorney, with a particular interest in abolishing the death penalty. While this is her first novel, she has published non-fiction articles and short stories in a variety of publications. The author’s interest in the moral obligations of killing or intentionally sending someone into a dangerous situation are played out between the two sides in this novel. At what point does the “golden rule” start turning into “the ends justify the means”?
The character of Cuza provides an opportunity to look at the effects of systemic antisemitism on the attitudes of someone prone to violence. In the interview I heard, Manning said she researched medieval torture as well as what repressive regimes do to prisoners, in order to create realistic scenes after Petrov is captured and imprisoned in Romania. The sympathetic character of Petrov provides an opportunity to look at morals from the other side. He is a sensitive person, loyal to the people he knows, yet in his job as a spy, in certain situations he will lie or even kill in order to protect particular people or carry out his mission. In the end, Petrov survives being captured and tortured by Cuza, and lives to see another day and another mission.
The author, whose given name is Sandra Katz, grew up in Roselawn and later pursued her law career in New York and New Jersey. She now lives in Vermont and writes fiction full-time. This novel is the first in a planned series of thrillers featuring the Kolya Petrov character, with the sequel, “Nerve attack,” scheduled to be published this fall. Last year, Manning had planned on decorating her van with the book cover design of “Trojan horse” and going on a cross-country promotional tour, but she was not able to due to the pandemic, so most of the publicity had to be done virtually and probably did not reach as many potential readers. If you would enjoy a story of espionage with a bit of romance thrown in, check out this debut novel.