Annika Malikova may mix with New York’s social elite now, but in a previous life as Baboushka she ran the most successful criminal gang in Moscow until her competitors joined forces to ensure her exile. It’s a past she believed she’d discarded until representatives of US covert agency EON throw it in her face, threatening extradition back to Russia unless she helps them procure valuable information at a well guarded meeting of global criminal overlords. The opening chapter displays just why Baboushka might be able to pull it off.

Antony Johnston’s earlier well constructed thrillers perhaps deserved wider recognition, but they lacked a charismatic leading character like Baboushka. Her presence in one of Johnston’s typically surprising plots of cross and double cross conforms more readily to the demands of the graphic novel market, and he manages to make her alluring and intriguing without resorting to objectification. Of course, the line of inspiration is obvious, and much of the plot reads as if what began as a proposal for a Black Widow story has been re-jigged to accommodate an original creation instead.

Not as smooth is Shari Chankhamma’s art. She takes her influences from Japanese comics, so constructs her pages around the figures with as a little background as possible, and the lack of surrounding detail gives the story a very basic look when compared with the similar works such as Modesty Blaise or Velvet. Most of the action takes place on a cruise liner, but from the way it’s drawn it could equally be an office block or a warehouse. By the same token, the only people illustrated are those needed for individual scenes, so most of the book focusses on assorted criminals and it’s a sudden jolting reminder when a hostage is taken late in the story that thousands of ordinary passengers are supposed to be aboard the ship. Fair enough, when your cruise ship is overrun with pirates then staying out of sight is the sensible option, but that they’re all invisible until needed stretches credibility.

Notwithstanding the reservations about the art, The Conclave of Death sets up an interesting character and an interesting premise. Johnston plays his cards close to his chest and hints there’s a lot about Baboushka that remains hidden. She’s strong enough to sustain a series, and returns in Ghost Station Zero.