A book blog about Russia in English-language fiction

Tag: Charles Cumming

Fatal Ally by Tim Sebastian (2019)

After more than two decades silence, a journalist who was once expelled from the Soviet Union has made contact. With a resurgent Russia back on the scene, his knowledge of how things used to be in Moscow could once again be useful.

But why was he so silent for so long? Can this really be the same man? And what do the things he learnt nearly 40 years ago tell us about Russia today?

You could be forgiven for thinking that these opening sentences sound like the back cover blurb for Fatal Ally. They are not. They are about its author, Tim Sebastian.

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Chameleon by Mark Burnell (2002)

Voronezh, Voronezh, Voronezh. Three reviews in a row take Russia in Fiction back there. Though this central Russian city diminishes as we progress. In Black Earth City, Voronezh is the central character. In JUDAS 62 it is the location of the origin plot. In Chameleon, the subject of this post, it is merely the site of a murder that forged the reputation of Mark Burnell’s main Russian character, the oligarch-cum-mafiya boss, Kostya Komarov.

Burnell’s wonderful Petra Reuter tetralogy was published between 1999 and 2005. Here at Russia in Fiction we have re-read them several times, and have learnt to take care when picking up the first in the series (The Rhythm Section), as it usually means reading the four book series all the way through.

The series as a whole is not specifically about Russia, but in Chameleon —the second in the series— Russia comes more to the fore, in the character of Kostya Komarov.

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JUDAS 62 by Charles Cumming (2021)

Charles Cumming is at the forefront of contemporary British thriller writers, and is on a bit of a roll at the moment. JUDAS 62 is his eleventh novel. The majority of these —with The Trinity Six being one of three exceptions— are not really Russia-in-fiction territory. But JUDAS 62 most definitely is.

‘Big bad Russia’ is back as the main enemy, and a large part of JUDAS 62 is set in the Russian city of Voronezh in 1993.

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Black Earth City: A year in the heart of Russia by Charlotte Hobson (2001)

Charlotte Hobson’s account of her year as a Russian language student in Voronezh in 1991-92 is Russia in Fiction’s favourite memoir about Russia. Some time in the next few months, we will add a post here about other memoirs, but this one deserves a post all of its own.

Of course Black Earth City does not really belong on the Russia in Fiction blog, as it is not fiction; hence this post’s appearance in the ‘Editorials et al’ section and the fact that we are not counting the memoir in our path to reviewing one hundred books that portray Russia in fiction.

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Need To Know by Karen Cleveland (2018)

In the flurry of Russia-related thrillers published in 2018, Karen Cleveland was a new name. She is one of those ex-security service officers (in her case, CIA) who bring a degree of inside knowledge to their writing. Although, this in itself is no guarantee of authenticity and quality; as the late Jason Matthews’s outdated portrayals of Russia illustrated, for example in Red Sparrow.

The plot of Need To Know is centred around a Russian sleeper agent who lives a normal happy family life with his wife and two young children in the Washington area; a convincing and likeable young American guy, going by the name of Matt.

The original twist is that Matt’s wife, Vivian, works for the CIA, is tasked with uncovering Russian sleeper agents, and discovers that her husband is a spy.

And before anyone complains of spoilers (never a complaint that Russia in Fiction has that much truck with anyway), all of the above is the set-up. It is in the blurb, it is in the first chapter.

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The Moscow Club by Joseph Finder (1991) – part one

Part two of this review is here

The first great post-Cold War thriller. So proclaims the front-cover strap line on this early paperback edition of Joseph Finder’s The Moscow Club. For once, the blurb has substance.

The Moscow Club is a great thriller. And it is post-Cold War. Though handily in terms of giving an undeserved sense of planning to the Russian in Fiction blog, its plot reaches back into the Soviet past, providing a neat link from our preceding mini-splurge reviewing novels on the death of Stalin.

According to the publicity blurb, The Moscow Club was named by Publishers Weekly as one of the ten best spy thrillers of all time. That might be pushing it. But Finder’s first novel might well nudge the top ten of the 100 books this blog will review, providing as it does almost 600 pages worth of densely plotted, action-filled, twist-on-twist thriller.

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Archangel by Robert Harris (1998)

Like the book reviewed immediately before this one (Shamim Sarif’s Despite the Falling Snow, 2004), Robert Harris’s Archangel is a novel largely set in the 1990s that can legitimately be tagged as Stalin-themed.

Whereas Despite the Falling Snow focuses on the personal impact of Stalin on individuals, in Archangel Robert Harris develops his plot on the national level, drawing on the hopes of a significant minority of Russians —and the fears of the rest— that the economically depressed and internationally diminished Russia of the mid-1990s might be ‘saved’ by the emergence of a Stalin-like figure ruthlessly committed to restoring former greatness.

Archangel is a classy page-turner of a thriller. But why Russia-in-Fiction particularly enjoyed it also has much to do with its early set-up bearing close affinity to our own experiences in the Russia of the early 1990s.

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Silhouette, Red Square

‘Cover for a thriller about Russia? No problem. If it’s a thriller, you’ll need a silhouette of someone. From behind is what most people choose. And Russia? Hmm … We’ll just put them on Red Square. That should do the job.’

But it wasn’t always like that. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, it was symbols, not silhouettes. Usually the hammer and sickle. Sometimes a red star.

Russia in Fiction might even have found the cover that sits on the boundary between symbols and silhouettes. Read on …

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The Cambridge Theorem by Tony Cape (1990)

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.

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