Written by Annie Hauxwell — If you had to create a check-list for a spy fiction heroine, then Catherine Berlin would not tick many boxes. Let’s try: Young and glamorous? No, she shows all of her 57 years, and looks slightly the worse for wear. High profile job? Sorry. She’s out of work, having been sacked from a dodgy security company. Socialises with the glitterati? Wrong again – her idea of a night out is running up a tab at a seedy street corner pub. Clean living, and her body is a temple? Hardly – she is a heroin addict and kept sane by strips of tablets, courtesy of the NHS.
Berlin is working a contract for a security firm, and is on the night shift, scanning a bank of CCTV cameras outside a London industrial unit. She watches the unscheduled and suspicious arrival of a white van, but when she is offered £50 to forget she ever saw the incident, she walks off the job. She confides in a journalist, and in turn both of them are targeted by unknown assailants. Out of the blue, Berlin is offered a bread-and-butter job by a former colleague. Go to Moscow, he says, with all expenses paid, and conduct a ‘due diligence’ interview with a Russian businessman who wants to invest his roubles in a British business.
From the word go, Berlin’s Moscow trip goes pear shaped. There is a no-show from the person who is meant to meet her at the airport, but he turns up later with a broken neck. Instead she is whisked away in a stolen car driven by Charlie Inkpen, a fat old Englishwoman with a serious cigarette habit. Things go from bad to worse when Berlin is arrested. Her passport is confiscated, along with her medication. Berlin interviews her businessman, accompanied by Inkpen, but senses that something is wrong. She crosses paths with Major Alexander Utkin of the Moscow CID, but she has no idea if he can be trusted or is just another of the puppet-masters, along with Lieutenant Colonel Yuri Lukov and his sinister associate, Maryana. Berlin slowly realises that she is being played for a fool by absolutely everyone.
The problem with this book is that it relies too much on the backstory, presented in the previous two Berlin novels. I had read neither, and therefore it was too much for my credibility to leap from the dowdy late middle-aged lady trudging home from a bender in the local pub, to the fierce and combative woman running rings around Moscow’s finest intelligence agents. It was all well and good to have Berlin taking off her top at one point, to reveal a mesh of scars; that told me something, but explained nothing. A Morbid Habit also relies on the regulation fall back position of many spy novels: no-one is ever who they say they are. One by one the characters metaphorically tear off their masks and cry, “A-ha! Now do you recognise me..?” There are only so many times that this can happen, before you’ll lose interest.
The Moscow locations are vividly portrayed. The desperate ambiguity of modern Russia – both morally and commercially – is convincing, and the aging policeman, Utkin, is one of the stronger characters. There are two connected but parallel mysteries in the plot. Firstly, what was going on in the warehouse when Catherine Berlin saw what she was never meant to see? Secondly, why is Utkin so obsessed with the sweet papers left at the crime scenes he is investigating? The latter is certainly answered with more clarity – and surprise – than the former.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars