G. D. (Garry) Abson’s first book is a cracking crime novel, set in contemporary St Petersburg and shaped around the character of a maverick female detective, Natalya Ivanova.
In Abson’s portrayal of Russia, for ‘maverick’, read ‘not corrupt’. Ivanova’s efforts to solve crime —in this case the disappearance of a young woman— are hindered as much by obstructive, careerist, regime-loyal colleagues as they are by the normal stuff such as lack of evidence and the deceptive nature of the criminal class.
One strap-line we have seen used for Motherland goes like this.
Russia in Fiction has developed a bit of a fascination for books published in the Chernenko era. We did not intend this. After all, Chernenko did not really have an era.
Konstantin Chernenko was in office as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for less than a year from April 1984. He followed on from Yurii Andropov’s comparatively lengthy 15 months in that role. And both came at the end of nearly a decade in which the Soviet superpower had been ruled by a gerontocracy —between the time that Leonid Brezhnev died for the first time in 1976* and a sprightly Mikhail Gorbachev came to power at a mere 54 years of age in March 1985.
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.
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.
A novel of Russia. That is the subtitle of Barnaby Williams’s novel Revolution. A subtitle like that is catnip to a blog called ‘Russia in fiction’. But what does it mean?
The phrase ‘novel of Russia’ turns out to be a reliable marker of genre. Several other books of the past few decades carry this marker, and they are all of a type.
‘Novel of Russia’ denotes what might be termed an ‘epic’; a sprawling, multi-generational, hundreds of pages long saga. Revolution begins —predictably enough— in 1917, on the eve of the Communist seizure of power in Russia, and ends as the Communist era itself ends, in the early 1990s, with Boris Yeltsin becoming the first president of a newly independent Russia.
The Russia in Fiction blog likes a good sub-genre. So how about, ‘books set in the Chernenko years’?
Except of course, Konstantin Chernenko was leader of the Soviet Union for so short a time that we can’t even talk about years. It would have to be ‘books set in the Chernenko year and 25 days’. He became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1984 and died in March 1985.
Après Chernenko, Gorbatchev et le déluge.
Paul Vidich’s The Mercenary, subtitled A Spy’s Escape from Moscow, is a terrific espionage thriller, that is not only set in early 1985 but is written in a style reminiscent of Cold War era spy novelists.
Published in 1988, The Cardinal of the Kremlin portrays a mid-Gorbachev era Soviet Union. At the time that the book was being written, Western analysts and politicians could not quite get their heads around what Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was doing.
Gorbachev had come to power in 1985, the fourth General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in less than two and half years. In a world with two superpowers, you could say that the General Secretary was one of the two most powerful men in the world. Gorbachev followed on from three sick old men, who had died in rapid succession.
In The Cardinal of the Kremlin the Soviet leader is clearly a Gorbachev figure. Clancy’s portrayal of him, and of the Soviet Union over which he presided, reflects that mixture of optimism and caution with which the West met this young reformer. Was he the real thing? Or was all subtle pretence?
Joseph Hone, ‘the most unjustly neglected spy novelist of his generation’. So said Hone’s obituary in The Telegraph (23 September 2016).
From the Russia-in-fiction perspective, The Sixth Directorate opens with a prescient view of what a few —though I think not many— observers of the Soviet scene with astute foresight were thinking possible in the mid-1970s. Surely, such apparently wishful thinking went, there must be people within the organisations at the heart of that closed stagnating system who wanted progressive reform?
You would think that after several decades reading spy thrillers about Russia, I would know all the good ones. Then, browsing the Oxfam bookshop on the Woodstock Road in Oxford a few years ago, I came across The Cambridge Theorem.
How had I missed this for so long? The Cambridge Theorem is brilliant. What is more, it turned out —or so I thought at the time— that it was the first in a trilogy based around its central character.