Carolyn Hougan's The Romeo Flag is mixed bag of treats. Published in 1989 it's a post-Cold War thriller of sorts combining elements of the mystery and spy novel genres with a dash of romance and family drama thrown in for good measure. Reading spy novels seems a natural progression from my normal mystery/thriller fare which I enjoy so much, and while not a perfect read this was probably as good a place to start as any.
Divorced school teacher Nicola Ward may be leading an uneventful life in Maine, but her world is about to be turned upside down when a mysterious trunk arrives after a forty-year journey that began in Shanghai during the war. Nicola was born in Shanghai but was taken by relatives to America to keep her out of harm's way. Her family perished during the war leaving Nicola an orphan, so the trunk is a welcome sight which she hopes will shed some light on her family's history. Inside the trunk are a diary and other documents written in Russian and Chinese along with a Russian icon and what appears to be an authentic Fabergé egg.
The contents seem innocuous enough, but for Nicola they may be the answer to her financial worries according to the experts at an auction house where she has taken them for appraisal. As a matter of fact there is a suspicion that the contents may have ties to the Imperial Russian family, the Romanovs. The diary and photos are passed along to an expert, someone with intimate knowledge of Russian history, culture and most importantly someone who can translate the documents into English. Neil Walker is an ex-CIA agent who retired from the service after one too many bloody missions. His work in the field has helped set him up nicely in the business of researching the provenance of Russian artifacts and translating documents.
Some secrets are better left locked up and forgotten, but when Nicola and Neil begin asking questions about the photos and diaries, long buried misdeeds threaten to come to light, which puts the two and their unsuspecting families in a precarious situation. Does Nicola have ties to the Romanov family? What really happened to her parents during the war? And are the answers worth killing for? The closer they come to learning the truth, the more dangerous their lives become until finally they have to run with their families while they find some sort of leverage to fight back.
There's a definite spark between Nicola and Neil, both single parents with unhappy pasts and difficult family problems to deal with. Nicola's daughter is suffering from anorexia, and daily she watches her waste away fearing that nothing will bring her back from the brink. Neil's wife died in a car accident while he as away on a mission, something he will never forgive himself for as he was meant to be driving. His son survived but can only walk with difficulty. There's a lot going on in the story and a full cast of characters, which Hougan manages well. It's sufficiently thrillerish with just the right dose of espionage that reaches as far back as the war and as high as the upper echelons of the American government.
The Romeo Flag was written in the late 80s and there are moments when it wears its colors very brightly. There were a number of cultural markers that set the tone of the time, but no worse than any other book. Still I had to chuckle when I read this passage about Neil doing research at the Library of Congress and was amused by how much things have changed!
"Walker proceeded through the huge room toward the alcove which housed the Xerox machines and the Scorpio computers. The computers were only knowledgeable back a certain way in time: only books printed since 1965 were listed. The staff struggled to keep them up to date, and then chip away at the centuries of books that remained to be added to the database. Still, he was after broad, contemporary knowledge. He wanted to compare Borodin's narrative to other source material describing the final days of the Romanovs. He typed in the search command for Romanov, narrowing his focus as he went, then told the computer to print out. He ripped off the short list, printed on thin shiny paper, and got up. The monitor read: this search required 4.75 minutes. SCORPIO is a service of the Library of Congress."
Wow. So fast? How did the world ever function without Google? Imagine putting in a few search terms and then waiting five minutes for the computer to grind away (which is an eternity when you are searching online) for your results.
All in all this was an entertaining read. My only quibble is that after a lengthy set up and a chase scene that was somewhat ragtag (both kids and parents along with a neighbor were involved), the ending was somewhat anticlimactic. I think I've watched too many MI-5 shows, which are so much edgier (to say nothing about violent), so it's not really Hougan's fault, since I was expecting something a little more cutthroat perhaps. Still the story whisked me away mentally during a week or so of gym visits, and I can't ask for more than that when it comes to a good thriller. Sadly Hougan passed away only a few years ago. I plan on reading her other novel, Shooting in the Dark, which is also published by Felony and Mayhem Press. The Chicago Tribune called it "shamefully neglected" and "a veritable Fabergé egg full of treasures and delights", so I look forward to it. She also wrote a number of thrillers with her husband.
I'll be looking for other good thrillers/spy stories to read, and at the moment I'm working on At Risk by Stella Rimington, which is a story about an MI-5 agent that is set in contemporary London. Recommendations for good espionage stories are very welcome.