Sex Dolls by Reggie Nadelson

Sex and drugs and nuclear weapons
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The Independent Culture

In the first of Reggie Nadelson's four thrillers, Red Mercury Blues, her Russian-born, all-American New York cop Artie Cohen gets involved in tracking down the "mules" who smuggle nuclear material. And wherever he goes (Sex Dolls starts on a romantic New Year's Eve with his girlfriend Lily on the London Eye), he can never quite escape the toxic aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Artie is now working freelance for a security firm, tying up loose ends in the seemingly banal case of an unclaimed bank account. Lily, an investigative journalist, is sniffing out the links in a pan-European vice trade when she gets savagely attacked in Paris. Part of "the spill-out from the USSR" are the "Natashas", the gorgeous young women with "the mile-long legs, the Slavic cheekbones that could cut glass, the bee-stung lips" who make perfect accessories for millionaires. Those in the know can go and take their pick in a wonderfully kitschy Parisian brothel.

Way, way down the food chain are the girls from the Balkan borderlands, shipped into Western Europe without papers and quickly disposed of if they don't play ball. When Lily catches a glimpse of these lower depths, she has a sense of having "some dark hole in the universe where women work the side of the road, if they're lucky, if they're not actually slaves, and men haggle over the price of a blow job. I could feel the shit up around my ankles". The pimps will stop at nothing to protect their assets – and nobody cares. "You can get more sympathy for a bunch of veal calves being shipped out of England than for women," Momo, a crusading French cop, remarks sourly.

Artie sets off in pursuit of the dough-faced Serbian enforcer who battered Lily into amnesia, aided only by Momo and a shady, bear-like Russian "businessman". This soon takes him into the dark heart of Europe – and the dark heart of male sexuality. Just across the Czech border is a supermarket "where all you could buy were big pieces of Czech cheese, garden gnomes and women". A Finnish entrepreneur named Finn has created a website, sexdolls.com, "determining the 'fuckability' of girls at various bars, hotels and rest stops along European highways, especially here, Europe's Highway 55".

"He was the kind of guy," Artie notes wearily, "who made quotation marks in the air with his fingers when he said 'fuckability'". "Age of consent 15 in Czech Republic," Finn explains, "so 14, even 13 can be nice, fresh." The business case almost makes itself: "He went to the border once a month, sometimes more, and there were millions of Finns. Tens of millions. The women only lasted a few years... You'd have to turn over the girls constantly if you wanted them fresh, like Finn wanted them, if you wanted them like the girls on the dance floor in the Black and Blue."

All roads lead eventually to a burnt-out town on the border between Bosnia and Serbia, to where the pondlife spawned by the Balkan wars slink away when things get too hot in the West. The book is a classy noir entertainment – edgy, witty, slickly plotted – rather than a treatise on the evils of prostitution, but, as with all good thriller writers, Nadelson takes us to some authentically nasty places. She has developed perfect pitch for the voice of her hard-boiled, jazz-loving, skirt-chasing hero, full of such reflections as: "In a bar I heard a guy say he liked fake tits better. I don't get it; they look and feel pumped up, hard and round, like sports equipment."

Red Poppies, the second title in the series, centres on the trade in adulterated heroin and fattened-up orphans as British rule comes to an end in Hong Kong. As a Chinese-American detective memorably remarks at one point: "If you ain't paranoid, Art, you ain't paying attention."

Sex Dolls is Nadelson's Parisian novel. And just about everywhere, as soon as Artie stops paying attention, the ghosts of his Moscow childhood stand ready to engulf him.

The reviewer is editor of the 'Jewish Quarterly'

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