A LONELY MAN by Chris Power (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $27)
Chris Power, a literary critic in London, surely must have been thinking of Carol Reed's classic 1949 film "The Third Man" when he wrote his elegant suspense novel "A Lonely Man." Like the movie, "A Lonely Man" features a struggling writer drawn into playing detective in a foreign city marked by gray apartment blocks and shadowy parks that bear silent witness to greed, despair and murder.
The story opens one evening in a Berlin book store. Robert and Patrick — both British, both writers — are browsing and reach for the same book. Robert is married and the father of two young girls. Some years ago, he published a respectfully reviewed short story collection and, ever since, he's been trying to write his first novel, but his imagination has run dry.
After their encounter, Robert and Patrick meet up at a bar a few nights later. Patrick is drinking heavily and, during the course of their conversation, Robert begins to understand why. Patrick is a ghostwriter, and his last client was a Russian oligarch named Sergei Vanyashin who was living in London. Vanyashin hired Patrick to write his memoir, which was to be filled with information damaging to Vladimir Putin. That writing project came to a halt the morning Vanyashin went out for a run and was subsequently discovered hanging from an oak tree with his own belt around his neck. The death was ruled a suicide, but Patrick insists it was murder. Patrick whispers to Robert that he is being followed in Berlin, probably by the same pro-Putin thugs who murdered his former employer.
That's the paranoid premise of "A Lonely Man," which, like the best noir fiction, manages to be both suspenseful and cosmically destabilizing. Nothing and no one are what they first appear to be.
Initially, we readers, like Robert, are skeptical of jittery, drunken Patrick and his claims of being targeted by Russian assassins; but, it turns out that that Robert isn't exactly trustworthy either. Robert's fatal flaw is his writerly desperation. Depressed at the end of yet another day spent trying to write his novel, Robert begins obsessing over the strange story Patrick, has told him.
Feeling entitled to a story that would otherwise go to waste, Robert begins manipulating Patrick into meeting for drinks, coffee and conversation. He charms Patrick into sharing his memories of interviews with the doomed Vanyashin, who lived like an emperor. It's all going so well, until Robert is grimly reminded that in laying claim to Patrick's material he, too, has turned into a writer-who-knows-too-much.
"A Lonely Man" is a superb suspense novel, imbued with moral and narrative complexity and an omnipresent low cloud cover of dread. Like Holly Martins, the novelist character played by Joseph Cotten in "The Third Man," Robert thinks that his literary skills make him smarter than everyone else: his trusting breadwinner wife, Patrick (whom he regards as a mere hack writer), and, certainly, the mysterious figures who may or may not be Russian enforcers. To Robert's dismay, he finds out that sometimes the sword is mightier than the pen.