Tat’yana Levchenko, the eponymous beautiful assassin of Michael White’s new novel, is a public-relations wet dream: a gorgeous Russian woman who kills Nazis for love of country and a hunger for vengeance. She’s perfectly willing to spend World War II on the Eastern Front, racking up sniper kills and worrying over her complicated relationship with her husband, but Stalin has other plans. The United States’ place in the war is still uncertain, and Tat’yana’s gender and looks make her the perfect tool to convince American citizens that it’s time to join the fight. The only problem is, she’s starting to lose faith in a government that dictates what’s safe to say and what isn’t, and beats its citizens (or worse) when they fail to follow the official line.
Assassin starts off in the trenches, but like Tat’yana, it doesn’t stay there long. White is more interested in the politics and intrigue of how two supposed allies try to plan ahead for an inevitable enmity. Under the guise of a “student exchange,” the former sniper travels America, making friends with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, while passing envelopes she can’t open to strangers with the right code word. Espionage-wise, it’s low-grade stuff; Tat’yana narrates her own story, and because she never rises very high in the circles of power, she never has more than hints of what’s really going on. Still, her story has an intimate suspense, and the characters who orbit her are believably developed.
Mrs. Roosevelt is a stand-out, as White does an excellent job of implying secrets about her without ever nailing down facts. It’s too bad, then, that he isn’t able to bring the same light touch to his main character. Assassin is an often-enjoyable look at the past, full of romance, danger and the occasional head shot, but Tat’yana herself is a frustratingly one-note character who repeats the same two or three thoughts throughout the narrative, to no real purpose or insight. She’s also painfully naïve, continually amazed that there are spies, and that spies have a habit of stealing secrets. Her morality should serve to center the drama, but winds up weighing it down instead, leaving her dragging behind “twists” that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who grew up on her side of the eventual Iron Curtain.