Deep cover

Jim Ruland is the author of the short story collection "Big Lonesome."

Leave IT to the French to pen a spy novel that takes the thrill out of espionage.

“Hotel Crystal’s” conceit: A famous writer -- who also may be a spy -- has gone missing, and the only clue to his whereabouts is a packet of papers discovered in a Parisian train station lost-and-found. The bundle comprises a hodgepodge of hotel stationery, postcards, transit maps and end-papers from travel guides -- the scrap paper of a man on the move. Composed on these sheets are descriptions of 43 hotel rooms from around the world.

Olivier Rolin’s protagonist is a well-read scoundrel and international man of mystery. He travels around the world getting in and out of impossible scrapes with nefarious characters and holes up in strange hotels, where he composes compulsively detailed notes about his surroundings. But “Hotel Crystal” is not a spy thriller; rather, it reads like “The Third Man” told from Harry Lime’s point of view.


Rolin has written a fascinating book that resists easy classification, but it’s also grindingly dull. Each entry begins in exactly the same manner: First the author describes the door, then the entranceway, then the room proper, and so on. Thus, the format for the account of Room 503 at the Hotel Opera in Bucharest is identical to that of Room 201 at Botanico Residencial in Coimbra and Room 1908 at the ANA Hotel in Hiroshima.

The reader encounters the same appointments over and over again. Moire patterns in the wallpaper. Frosted-glass transoms. Bedspreads a shade between puke and denture pink. There are enough luggage racks, minibars and under-stuffed armchairs to fill a warehouse. The beige carpet “sprinkled with grayish green” stretches for miles.

What makes these descriptions so unusual is that they are bereft of the false romance one finds in hotel promotional material. There’s no fluff copy composed by hacks who have never set foot in the city, to say nothing of the hotel itself. Instead, the entries read like postmodern memory exercises.

For a first-person narrative there’s very little “I” -- until we come to the one fixture in every room: the mirror. That’s when the author steps out of the shadows and reveals what he’s doing in Madaba, Miami or Moscow.

The mirrors “send back a cruel image” of a booze-addled operative engaged in staggeringly hare-brained schemes that would make Harry Lime blush. The man’s reflection in the mirror deteriorates into “a wrinkly, reddish sack -- a mushy wine-soaked pear -- crested with scarce bristling strands of hair and pitted with two plague-ridden rat’s eyes.” It’s a classic device in the genre: The man leading a double existence confronts himself in the mirror. But in “Hotel Crystal,” more than the mask is slipping: The entire fiction is mired in uncertainty.

As the agent’s desperation gets worse, the capers become more absurd: smuggling plans for the Proton rocket in a tin of caviar, hiding explosives inside nougat candies, fomenting a Siberian secession movement because the “subsoil is very rich in frozen mammoths and diamonds” and commandeering the Mars Polar Lander probe with a laptop, a television and an antenna. Chicanery of this sort abounds in “Hotel Crystal.”

The wildest scheme of the lot involves negotiations with Saddam Hussein’s sons to pass off a brewery as a WMD factory. The protagonist covets the kickbacks he’ll receive from the Germans for building the facility, from the CIA for the “proof” it will provide them, and from Budweiser for making it operational in order “to produce the millions of gallons of beer required to quench the thirst of the American occupation troops.”

OF COURSE, one can’t have a French spy novel, even a postmodern anti-spy spy novel, without a host of exotic female seductresses kicking up their heels. In addition to the obligatory lusty hotel maid and randy English tourist, there’s Pashmina Pachelbel, dressed “in a tight, fake zebra skirt and leopard bustier, whose hardly allegorical message seemed to be ‘hunting season is now open’ ” and Melanie Melbourne, the protagonist’s great unrequited love, who is kidnapped more often than Olive Oyl.

The writing is dry, the humor droll and the descriptions of the rooms maddeningly repetitive, yet “Hotel Crystal” is a hugely compelling read. One must diligently mark one’s place for fear of getting lost -- such is the sameness of the scenarios, but one never tires of the schemes. Rolin takes fiendish delight in skewering the redundancies of spy fiction and writing in the realist mode.

For all its robust wit and cosmopolitan embroidery, “Hotel Crystal” details a Dorian Gray-like descent into the bottle. Our man in Khatanga, Port Said, Helsinki, isn’t a spy so much as a “scribbler with too much drink in him,” as Graham Greene so famously described Harry Lime’s antagonist. For the lonely souls who check into the Hotel Crystals of the world and anesthetize themselves with expensive booze and cheap paperbacks, the dreary rooms are a sanctuary from perils real and imagined. *