Russia in Fiction has reminded readers often enough that the reviews on this blog ask two questions of every book. What is the book like? And how does it portray Russia?
Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story unquestionably knows its Russia. Andrea Bennett falls into the category of authors who lived in Russia in the unforgettable chaos of the 1990s. Just as did Sophia Creswell, Anna Blundy, and A.D. Miller, Andrea Bennett successfully draws on that experience in writing memorable fiction.
And as for what the book is like? Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story summons up the sometimes joyous, sometimes tragic disorder of the immediate post-Soviet years in a slightly surreal yet recognisably realistic comic tale.
Before our next review goes somewhere slightly different (the town of Azov, to be precise), Russia in Fiction fancies bringing together a few themes from our first year of blogging. Charles McCarry’s Old Boys is a fine book for doing that.
As its name denotes, in its reviews the Russia in Fiction blog probes the fiction written and the Russia portrayed. Old Boys came from the pen of one the classiest of literary espionage writers of the Cold War years, Charles McCarry (1930-2019). And its decades-spanning take on Russia serves as a summation of Russo-specific themes often to the fore in fictional renderings.
What is more, the edition of Old Boys that Russia in Fiction read has enough on its cover to keep us going for a paragraph or two before we even get to the novel itself. Specifically, Silhouette, Red Square; and a degree of pre-approval —from almost two decades before we devised it— of our ranking of great Cold War spy novelists.
The Moscow Olympics of 1980 presented a setting for thriller writers that was too good to miss. Especially if they timed it right and got their book in the shops ahead of the Games.
Russia in Fiction has already reviewed one such book (John Salisbury’s 1980 novel Moscow Gold). David Grant beat Salisbury to the tape, with Moscow 5000 being published in 1979.
Well, we say David Grant. In reality, Moscow 5000’s author was renowned British thriller writer Craig Thomas (1942-2011), writing under a pseudonym. And the novel’s skilfully complex plot betrays that it is not written by a novice; with four strong and interlinked story lines coming to their conclusion in the running of the men’s 5000 metres final in the XXII Olympiad in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium in 1980.
From the Russia-in-fiction angle, two of these plot strands are notable; particularly so the Ukrainian nationalist one.
It is a happy coincidence that the Russia in Fiction blog is being written at a bumper time for Russia-in-fiction trilogies. We are in the middle of those by Sarah Armstrong and Ben Creed. The final one of Henry Porter’s Paul Samson series was published in April of this year, followed the next month by the last in Tom Bradby’s Kate Henderson series (the first is reviewed here, the third is mentioned here). And we are certainly at the end of the Dominika Egorova trilogy by Jason Matthews, as he sadly passed away a few months ago (again, the first is reviewed here).
And now his namesake Owen Matthews brings us the second in his Alexander Vasin series.
Red Traitor differs from the first novel in the series, Black Sun (2019). Black Sun was very much a detective story, and notable for its plot being contained geographically and culturally in the distinctive and little-known world of the Soviet closed city.
Red Traitor ranges more widely. In genre terms Red Traitor moves onto the ground of the international relations thriller, with sonar-pinging echoes of Tom Clancy’s early work.
The Cold War is dead, but Russia’s ambitions continue to rage.
So proclaims the front cover blurb of this 2011 thriller, in a bombastic non sequitur that typifies the return of ‘big bad Russia’ to Western thriller writers’ armoury at the end of this century’s first decade.
The Cold War ended at the end of the 1980s. For a decade or more, if thriller writers wrote about Russia, they wrote of decline and gangsterism. Then as a recovering Russia reasserted itself on the international stage, it once more became the ‘other’ against which Western spies and governments fought.
Russia in Fiction reckons that this return to a portrayal of Russia in these terms can be dated to around 2010. Alex Dryden was one of the earliest authors to embrace it.
War-with-Russia novels were legion in the 1980s. Authors such as Tom Clancy, Ralph Peters, Dennis Jones, Larry Bond, Ian Slater, and General Sir John Hackett all produced one or more examples of military scenario fiction, usually written as a sort of alternative history.
To generalise with some degree of assurance, their plots consisted of carefully worked out military campaigns of the war-gaming variety, drawing on the detailed plans that NATO and the Warsaw Pact had developed for such eventualities. To make them more than simply glorified campaign manuals, human interest would be added by naming individual soldiers, sketching out their characters and home lives, and following them into battle.
Russia in Fiction has reviewed one of the betters ones, Red Army by Ralph Peters (1989). Red Metal, published three decades later, gives an updated and original take on the war-with-Russia concept.
Billionaire Russian businessman Roman Gorsky lives a life beyond imagining in terms of material wealth. Anything he wants, he buys. In London —Chelsea to be precise— he is converting a former barracks into a super-luxurious home, designed by the world’s leading modern architect.
First person narrator Nick —like many in this novel, the young Serbian is an immigrant to international London— works in a bookshop and is commissioned by Gorsky to stock what will be ‘the best private library in Europe’.
But can money buy love and happiness? Gorsky is certainly giving that a go. Both the location of his mansion, and the content of his library, are aimed at winning over Natalia, a beautiful Russian married to Englishman Tom Summerscale.
But Gorsky is too sophisticated a book to be a simple ‘money can’t buy you everything’ morality tale.
Canadian writer Anthony Hyde’s first novel, The Red Fox was published in 1985; the year that Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union.
The Red Fox stands then as one of the last thrillers of the pre-reform Cold War era. It provides an example of that fascinating phenomenon where fiction proves more accurate in terms of forecasting than do the efforts of experts paid to analyse.
Intuition, applied in the service of entertainment but in the light of intelligent observation, can trump data-driven models bound by assumptions of continuity.
The central character of The Moscow Club —’the first great post-Cold War thriller’— comes straight out of the standard thriller stable. There is not a great deal of room for doubting that he is on the side of the angels and will triumph.
The reader knows, from the moment we encounter him rock-climbing, on vacation from his role as genius Soviet analyst with a secret CIA off-shoot agency, that Charles Stone is always going to win through.
That is not a plot-spoiler. It is just obvious. Stone’s work with an off-the-books CIA branch (slightly reminiscent of the off-the-books British agency for which Petra Reuter works in Mark Burnell’s superb novels) plunges him into the hunt for plotters in the KGB and the CIA alike. It then gets personal when his godfather (Winthrop Lehman) and his father (an academic, expert on Russia, broken by spying allegations and prison during the McCarthy witch-hunts of the early 1950s) turn out to be involved in some way.
Oh, and Stone’s estranged wife also comes into the picture. Handily, from many perspectives, she’s a beautiful, blonde, Moscow-based, TV reporter.