cover image Dispatch from a Cold Country

Dispatch from a Cold Country

Robert Cullen. Ballantine Books, $21 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-449-91258-4

The guessing game starts early in this excellent thriller about art masterpieces, mayhem and military corruption in present-day Russia. Which priceless painting from the Hermitage is about to be secretly sold for $400 million? Evidence points to a rare Leonardo. The pending sale, moreover, seems to be connected to the death of Hermitage director Fyodor Vasiliev, as well as that of freelance reporter Jennifer Morelli, whose murder sends Colin Burke, the Washington Tribune's Russia expert, to St. Petersburg to investigate. Aided by black CIA agent Desdemona McCoy, who aims to prevent the Hermitage sale, Burke uncovers links among a ballet-loving Russian gangster, his hard-line military allies and the Cali drug cartel. Also in the thick is a talented Hermitage employee with an agenda of her own. Cullen (Cover Story, 1994) crams the narrative with acute observations on the former Soviet Union. He also packs in enough subplots to fill two average novels, including Burke's battle against alcohol, an assassination attempt relying on an American fall guy and the start of a new Cold War. But all these bonuses don't weaken the story line, which will keep readers tied up with its clever twists and sleek styling. (June)