‘Nobody knows more about Russia than you’ (p. 33). So Dr Sam Gaddis, the hero of Charles Cumming’s fifth novel, is told.
Part-way through The Trinity Six, Russia in Fiction was less impressed with Gaddis, being more inclined along the lines of
‘Blimey – Dr Sam Gaddis gives academics a bad name. He is so slow, as if he’s never read a thriller in his life. Every coincidence that happens, he accepts unquestioningly. He completely fails to read the situation.’
Happily Gaddis improved, and with him the novel, which is a relatively complex example of the ‘secrets from history which must never come to light’ genre.
The Betrayal is not the first book reviewed on the Russia in Fiction blog that is set in Leningrad in the opening years of the 1950s. That honour goes to City of Ghosts, which is set in 1951. Helen Dunmore’s novel takes place a year later, in 1952.
In both cases, the key fact in relation to setting is that Stalin was still alive.
Before Stalin’s death in 1953, the feeling that the demise of his repressive dictatorship was long overdue was particularly keenly felt in Leningrad, a ‘hero city’ that suffered more than most during the Second World War.
Published in 1954, Arm Me Audacity is a fascinating thriller, particularly when read from the standpoint of the 21st-century. Its author, Richard Pape, was a former RAF man who had turned his wartime exploits —captured and tortured by the Nazis only to then escape by ingenious and dashing means— into an autobiographical bestseller Boldness Be My Friend (1953).
Arm Me Audacity tells the story of Anthony Petheran, an Englishman with a wartime biography similar to that of the author, who hatches a plan to travel behind the Iron Curtain and assassinate a British defector to the Soviet Union.
Michael Frayn — man of letters, leading British playwright, acclaimed novelist; also a renowned translator of Chekhov and, less well known, of ‘the Soviet Chekhov’ Yurii Trifonov.
Published in 1966, The Russian Interpreter came at the outset of Frayn’s literary career. His second novel, it appeared in the year that his first novel, The Tin Men, won the Somerset Maugham Award. Unusually for a writer from the West in that era, Frayn was able to draw on significant experience of living in the Soviet Union.
Martha marries Kit, a gay British diplomat serving in Moscow in 1973. This platonic marriage suits them both — Kit feeling the need to disguise his sexuality; Martha finding a route out of the conventional home-bound English middle-class future her parents see for her.
Sarah Armstrong’s The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt plays off the temporal and physical settings of Moscow and 1973 against one another.
Martha embraces life in Soviet Moscow, with all its faults and fears. For Kit, working in the British Embassy, the reality of Cold War tensions are ever present.
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.