cover image The Button Man

The Button Man

Brian Freemantle. St. Martin's Press, $22.95 (390pp) ISBN 978-0-312-08716-6

British writer Freemantle offers grand, literate fun dressed up as a novel of suspense. A young American economist is murdered in Moscow, her hair and the buttons on her clothes chopped off. Her uncle, a powerful U.S. senator, demands that the American government participate in the investigation, forcing an uneasy collaboration between Col. Dimitri Danilov of the Moscow Militia and FBI Russian desk-head William Cowley. Their shaky start gives way to friendship as they discover that each is dogged by personal demons: Danilov is fighting to extricate himself from an adulterous affair; Cowley struggles against booze. As the investigation progresses, sordid secrets emerge from the U.S. Embassy and new murders involve Russian and American law enforcement agencies in some nasty maneuvering for position. Sharp-nosed readers may smell the killer halfway through, but Freemantle ( Comrade Charlie ) keeps suspense high right up through the slightly over-the-top, bittersweet ending. Much of the book's interest lies in its picture of contemporary Moscow, a place of gaudy crime and corruption where even a high-ranking cop must take his windshield wipers off when he parks (``a basic rule of Moscow motoring''), and where flashing a Marlboro pack is the one sure way to stop a cabbie. Freemantle's command of ``Americanese'' is somewhat distracting--``tailback'' instead of traffic jam; ``roll-neck'' for turtleneck--but this is a small quibble about a book that successfully mixes procedural and thriller with engrossing aplomb. (Aug.)