Russia is about to invade Ukraine. Or so the warnings from the UK, the United States, and various other western governments have been telling us for the past couple of months.
Whilst normal practice would be for analogous war fiction to appear after the event, Russia in Fiction has a fascination with those authors who wrote Russian history before it happened. (See our reviews of, for example, The Fall of the Russian Empire and The Red Fox).
Tom Clancy and Mark Greaney wrote about a Russian invasion of Ukraine back in 2013, before even Crimea had been incorporated into the Russian Federation. Command Authority spotted that possibility in advance. But now, in 2022, the novel’s plot seems potentially prescient once more.
Russia in Fiction has several times repeated our short list of the best writers of Cold War espionage novels. It goes, John le Carré, rhymes with Charles McCarry, and add a couple of Bobs (Littell and Moss).
But have we yet reviewed a Robert Littell espionage novel? It’s a rhetorical question.
Russia in Fiction has reviewed a le Carré (Our Kind of Traitor), a couple of McCarrys (The Secret Lovers and Old Boys), and one and half Moss’s (Moscow Rules, and The Spike co-written with Arnaud de Borchegrave).
And now we finally get round to reviewing a Robert Littell book, and what do you know, it is not one of his invariably terrific espionage novels. In fact it is not even a book we enjoyed much. But it is a fine novel from the Russia-in-fiction perspective, written by a skilled writer with undeniable panache and wit and knowledge of Russia.
One of the aims of the Russia in Fiction blog is to get a sense of how Russia is portrayed in English-language fiction over time. What are the themes that come to the fore in different periods? What are the constants? And how realistic is any of this stuff?
One thing that we didn’t expect to find when we started out was quite the number of ‘Chernenko-era’ books that there are. We have written about this before at some length, and don’t want to re-hash all of that here. (Have a look at the review of Russian Spring (1984) by Dennis Jones for more details).
Moscow Rules is another thriller set in the year of Konstantin Chernenko as leader of the Soviet Union (1984-85). It stands out because it recognised, ahead of the events, that the Soviet system was heading to a swift end.
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 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.
Part one of this review is here
Part three of this review is here
A Patriot in Berlin has some of the archetypal features of books set shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. To the fore is the presence of those ex-KGB and military types deeply concerned at the loss of Soviet power, and with it their own power. The list of novels built on similar concerns in the 1990s is long (immediately springing to mind are Tim Sebastian’s Saviours Gate, and Tony Cape’s The Last Defector).
Having elements of a formula does not make a novel formulaic, nor does dealing with common themes make it derivative. A Patriot in Berlin has striking elements of its own. It is set in post-unification Berlin in 1992-93 and is based around plans for an exhibition of Russian art forbidden in the Soviet years.
Read has a gift for encapsulating the uncertainty of these years; an uncertainty which Russia in Fiction remembers well from life in Moscow during that period.
Sometimes —and may be more often than usual in the middle of a pandemic-inflicted lockdown— a bit of escapism is just the ticket.
Step forward, James Patterson ‘the most borrowed author in UK libraries for the past thirteen years in a row’, and author of, well, who knows? 120? 130 novels? Several a year, mostly with co-authors.
Private Moscow is the 15th in the Private series about an élite detective agency with branches around the world, founded and led by all-action American hero Jack Morgan. From cover through to final page, it gathers in the Russia-in-fiction thriller clichés in a fast-moving action movie-style plot. But there is more to Private Moscow than that.
I stayed up into the small hours to finish it …
Part one of this review is here
Key to many a thriller/crime writer’s success is the creation of a memorable lead character. Martin Cruz Smith has his Arkady Renko, Boris Akunin his Erast Fandorin, and even John Le Carré returned again and again to the enigmatic George Smiley. Tom Clancy did not simply create such a character, he created a dynasty and alternative history.
Clancy’s Jack Ryan rose, across a series of novels, from CIA analyst to two-term US President. There then followed a series of novels about Jack Ryan Jr., continued after Clancy’s death in 2013 with varying degrees of quality across multiple authors. Jack Ryan movies are multiple, and there is a Jack Ryan Jr. TV series.
In The Cardinal of the Kremlin —the third novel to feature Clancy’s signature character— we meet CIA analyst Jack Ryan as part of an American delegation to Moscow, charged with negotiating an arms control treaty. The US side are sceptical of any Soviet concession.
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?
And how right they were.
Part two of this review is here.
May be the reviewer who wrote “a worthy successor to John Le Carré” thought that they were doing Sally McGrane a favour? They would be wrong. And not just for the normal ‘why is everyone who writes a half decent spy thriller always compared to Le Carré?’ reasons.
Moscow at Midnight might be about a jaded CIA officer in Russia on the trail of a missing woman, but it ain’t no spy thriller. It is a smorgasbord of literary genres — sure, there is espionage; and there is a touch of Bulgakovian magic realism; and there is satire; and there is crime; and there is comedy.
But most of all, there is Russia.