People, much like crows, are attracted to bright and shiny objects. The difference between the two is that the crow won’t hurt you to get at a pretty bauble. People? Well, the characters in Matthew Hart’s new thriller “The Russian Pink” will lie, cheat, and kill to get their hands on precious gems, proving, as Hart warns, that “All diamonds are blood diamonds.”
The story begins in Angola, when a large, grapefruit-sized, pink diamond – the eponymous gem – is pulled from the ocean floor. Murder quickly ensues, then a little fleecing by a diamond merchant before the real trouble hits: The diamond descends on the world market.
As soon as the Russian Pink goes up for sale, it draws the attention of a U.S. Treasury agent named Alex Turner, a man who used to (double-) deal in precious gems as a young man. Now firmly planted in early middle age, Turner has an ex-wife and a teenage daughter that make him vulnerable to threats from agents, counter-agents, and determined politicians. And then there is Slav Lily.
She is small, beautiful, and deadly, and Turner is quite enamored of both Lily and her ability to glide through the shady world of Russian diamond traders. As with the most interesting characters, she has a sad backstory and enough pizzazz that one can see her, and Turner, show up in another thriller.
Hart, who has long reported on gold and diamonds for publications ranging from Vanity Fair to The London Times, also wrote the 2002 nonfiction book “Diamond: The History of a Cold-Blooded Love Affair,” and “Gold: Inside the Race for the World’s Most Seductive Metal,” which was adapted into a National Geographic special. It’s no surprise that the information about gems that he includes in the story is not only accurate, but fascinating.
When Hart delves into governmental black ops maneuvers and under-the-table deals, “The Russian Pink” reads like a well-written thriller. But it’s when Hart describes diamonds that he is at his best. “Light found its way into it through cracks, and the crystal fed on the light, magnifying it and driving it back out,” he writes of the moment when the mud-caked pink diamond is first pulled from the sea. Later in the novel, when Turner and Slav Lily try to dupe someone, she wears a black Balenciaga dress and a ring with a “twenty-carat, top-color white in an emerald cut.” Later, she plays with the diamond on her finger, drawing attention to it so that the stone is remembered instead of her face.
There are times when Hart’s descriptions veer into overblown imagery, which slows the action. He is most effective when unspooling his brilliant, conniving, complex cast of characters. If there is to be a sequel, one hopes these characters return and are pushed to the forefront. As much as this novel is about action and adventure, it’s the personalities that keep you reading.