The Coil

by Gayle Lynds

Published by St. Martin's Minotaur

464 pages, 2004





Moving Target

Reviewed by David Montgomery


The thriller genre has been pronounced dead so many times that it would seemingly take a miracle even to get it on life-support at this point. This just goes to show that you can't believe everything you read these days, for not only is the thriller not dead, but it is alive and well and safe in the hands of outstanding authors such as Gayle Lynds.

Although the end of the Cold War might have stymied lesser writers, the true talents of the genre have used the opening of a new world order to create storylines as fresh, insightful and entertaining as any of the classics.

A onetime protégée and collaborator with the late, great Robert Ludlum, Lynds has stepped out of the master's shadow to introduce The Coil, a rousing new work that deserves a prominent place on the shelf next to the best that Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, et al. ever wrote.

Liz Sansborough (who first appeared in Lynds' 1996 novel, Masquerade) was once a spy for the CIA. Her revulsion to violence eventually led her to abandon that life and turn to academia instead, fleeing to California to live a quiet life as a college professor. Her former existence, though, is something she can never leave completely behind. There are powerful groups at work who believe that Sansborough possesses vital information -- the kind of intelligence that can bring down governments -- and they will do anything to obtain that information.

In order to survive, Liz is forced to plunge back into that shadowy world, relying on all of her savvy and rusty skills as an operative in order to protect herself and those she cares about. From one blistering conflict to another, Lynds leads her heroine through a shark-infested miasma of international corruption and deceit.

Humidity hung thick, and sweat poured off her as Liz tore between a parked taxi and an old Audi and across the street and past open bar doors and clumps of people standing outside, drinking and smoking and staring. She hugged the jacket as if her life depended on it and gripped the cell like a weapon. The door to a club swung open and heavy-metal rock blasted out. Never slacking, she ran from the jackals in the warehouse and from the sirens that screamed closer. The sky was black and far away, unreachable.

Liz has help along the way, largely in the form of British MI6 agent Simon Childs. Childs is the agency's expert on today's anti-globalization movement, the ragtag alliance of protesters who turn up periodically to riot and throw rocks at the World Bank. Childs' assignment was to infiltrate that movement, which he did with great success. His undercover position has allowed him access to the deepest secrets surrounding the world's most powerful corporations.

The possibility that a coalition of international mega-conglomerates could be behind the campaign to discover Sansborough's closely held intelligence brings Simon aboard, both as a protector and fellow operative. Childs is an intriguing character, an indifferent spy who lets his heart and his passions interfere with what is supposed to be a cold, calculating job.

Lynds includes here a fascinating portrayal of the inner workings of the super-secret MI6, the British equivalent of America's Central Intelligence Agency -- only far more clandestine. Never as prone to such freedom with secrets as their U.S. cousins, British establishment types refused to even admit the existence of MI6 until the late 1990s. By that point, nearly everything had changed, as Lynds' (fictional) head of the agency, Shelby Potter, laments in The Coil:

With its commanding position above the Thames River, MI6's new headquarters in Vauxhall Cross, south London, looked to Shelby Potter like a bloody birthday cake, not a place for the raw business of foreign intelligence. ... Potter had indelible memories of the unmarked London high-rise that had been HQ for decades, where so much was sacrificed and accomplished. In those heady days, security identified it to the nosey public only as the Ministry of Defense. But then, until just seven years ago, the government had denied MI6's very existence. All of that had changed by 2001, when MI6's chief, Sir David Spedding, died. It was announced in the gossip rags. The poor bloke. He might as well have been some bloody air-headed socialite.

One distinctly refreshing aspect of Lynds' writing is that she uses fewer of the swift reversals, baseless double-crosses and improbable coincidences that have long been seemingly necessary, but often distracting, elements of the thriller. Although the plot of The Coil is as suspenseful and serpentine as any reader could hope it would be, the story earns its marks with surprising, but still logical twists and complications, proof of the author's labors at her craft.

Another area in which this author excels is in her exposition of details. As a former U.S. government think-tanker with a Top Secret security clearance, Lynds knows enough about the shadowy world that her characters inhabit to ensure that her stories have, at the very least, the semblance of veracity. For instance, in The Coil's first chapter, a notorious assassin carries out a hit -- which, the author has related, was based on the actual assassination of dissident writer Georgi Markov by the KGB:

He was on his second pastry when he spotted the target. He casually picked up his cane and moved naturally into the stream of pedestrians. Apparently, the density of the crowd forced him to hold the cane upright.

In the normal course of things, he bumped into one or two people, including his target, expressed his horrified regrets each time, and finally, as if the crush were too much, turned back toward the café.

A woman screamed. Everyone looked in her direction. Near here, a tall, slender man with a Mediterranean complexion had collapsed on the sidewalk, his hand clutching his chest.

The tip of the cane, of course, was modified to inject its target with a special derivative of Rauwolfia serpentina, which is related to common tranquilizers and depresses the central nervous system, mimicking natural cardiac arrest.

As one of the few novelists who combines an uncommon knowledge of the covert world with a craftsman's skill at thriller writing, Gayle Lynds -- married to Dennis Lynds (aka Michael Collins), creator of the Dan Fortune series -- knows the genre as well as anyone who has ever worked in it. And she brings all that expertise to bear in this book.

With its panoramic backdrop of exotic European locales, breakneck pacing, a tough and brainy protagonist and vicious villains, The Coil has all of the pieces in place to make it a spellbinding thriller. | April 2004


David Montgomery is the editor of Mystery Ink and the mystery columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. He also contributes regularly to such publications as USA Today, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post.