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Onyx reviews: The Spy Who Came for Christmas by David Morrell

The Spy Who Came for Christmas is packaged in an attractive, small format with an eye-catching design that would be at home on an inspirational book, save for the reflection of a hand clutching a pistol in the Christmas tree ornament that graces the cover. Within a few pages, readers will realize this isn't a charming, light-hearted seasonal romp.

It's Christmas Eve in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Canyon Road district has been blocked off from traffic as part of an annual tradition that turns the neighborhood into a holiday attraction that brings people in from across the country. Morrell disseminates information about the city and its traditions through overheard conversations as the protagonist makes his way through the streets.

Paul Kagan, the sun of Russian defectors who was conscripted to become an undercover agent, has infiltrated the Russian mob. Unlike most other criminal organizations, the Russians don't care who they work for. Their client list reads like a who's who of foreign hostiles, including Hamas and Al Qaeda. Maintaining his cover has required Kagan to do things that prey on his conscience. Every time he asks his handlers to release him from this duty, though, another serious threat to U.S. soil comes along. He feels like he is losing his soul one assignment at a time.

When the book opens, Kagan is hiding a Glock and a special "package" under his coat as he navigates the crowded and festive Santa Fe streets. He is wounded and bleeding. He lost his cell phone during his daring escape from his three Russian "colleagues," but still has the earpiece and transmitter that allows him to communicate with them, and vice versa.

Goaded on by their boss, the Pakhan, the other Russians are in hot pursuit, led by Andrei, who has become of close friend of Kagan's. Each man knows how the other thinks, so their cat-and-mouse game through the crowded streets is a battle of wits. Losing strength because of his bullet wound, Kagan needs a place to hide with his precious package. He randomly chooses a house, unaware that he is stepping into a family drama involving an abused mother, alcoholic father and Cole, their vulnerable, handicapped son.

The novel takes place over the course of several hours, as Kagan prepares for the inevitable confrontation with his former allies while trying to alleviate the concerns of the family whose home he invaded. After rigging the house with impromptu booby traps, Kagan has time to calm Cole. In an attempt to explain the nature of his work, Kagan retells the Christmas story, populating it with double agents and conspiracies. The Magi, he says, were actually Persian spies who wanted to destabilize Herrod's government, thereby causing it to collapse from within, rather than challenging the Roman Empire directly.

"The Spy Who Came for Christmas" is not much of a departure for thriller writer Morrell, a resident of Santa Fe. It's a fast-paced and entertaining read that takes full advantage of Morrell's intimate knowledge of Santa Fe and his research into such diverse subjects as how to feed a newborn without milk and how to turn a microwave oven into an explosive device. Without being too heavy handed about it, Morrell also manages to tell a story appropriate to the season with a message of hope for humanity.

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