The Jericho Files is the first novel by Australian author Alan Gold, and the only one with a Russia focus. Even then, that focus is not on Russia alone, but also on Israel —the subject of most of Gold’s many later novels.
The titular ‘Jericho Files’ hold the secret of a Soviet plot, dating back to the late Stalin years, to insert a Communist sleeper agent into the political life of the nascent state of Israel. By the 1990s, this man has become Prime Minister of Israel and sets about disrupting the international order in alliance with Moscow.
The Jericho Files is a well-constructed page-turning thriller; but with one issue that bugs Russia in Fiction. There is a questionable premise at the heart of the plot, a premise that recurs in several post-Soviet thrillers. Why would a died-in-the-red-wool, decades-long Communist feel allegiance to the regime that overthrew Communism in Russia?
When your choice of fiction is influenced by where it is set, then you can end up reading novels that you would not otherwise have given a second glance to. So far as Russia in Fiction is concerned, Mrs Harris Goes To Moscow is one such novel.
Russia in Fiction claims no special expertise in the literature of the prolific Paul Gallico (1897-1976), whose output of over 50 books ranged from The Poseidon Adventure, which was made into a blockbuster disaster movie, to children’s books much loved by Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling.
Lacking such expertise, we turned to a website that is, in the words of its writer, ‘dedicated to the literature of Paul Gallico, one of my favourite authors’. Its conclusion with regard to Mrs Harris Goes To Moscow?
For the first —and no doubt only— time, Russia in Fiction is reviewing a book that does not mention Russia.
And its set-up cannot fail but bring to mind the 2006 Oscar-winning German movie Das Leben des Anderen (The Lives of Others).
In the basement of a block of flats in the capital of ‘an anonymous Iron Curtain country’ called Commitania, sits a man, headphones on, tape reels whirring, listening in on conversations throughout the apartment block.
And how do we know it is about Moscow in the 1960s? Regular readers of this blog might already have picked up the clues.
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?
There is something fascinating about Soviet-related thrillers published in the 1980s, because we know the real life geopolitical plot outcome. That is, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. You cannot help but ‘read back’ into novels of that era, what we know to be the eventual outcome.
Blind Prophet is one of those novels that took me back to what got me into Russia in fiction in the first place. By the final pages I was speed-reading, not from boredom, but from the page-turning momentum of a terrifically plotted Cold War thriller, with all the key ingredients and more.
Reading A Quiet End, DeMille’s 2015 novel with a vaguely Russian theme, sent me back to his 1988 thriller The Charm School. A very different, and frankly better, book.
The Charm School is brilliant, both as a thriller and for its knowledge of Russia and the Soviet Union —plenty of details about Soviet life, some great settings in Moscow and beyond, and a plot that is never predictable.
If you know thrillers, you will know the name of Nelson DeMille. He is one of those guaranteed bestsellers. He doesn’t write about Russia most of the time, but he has done occasionally both before and since the Soviet era.
The Charm School (1988) is a classic, with its scenes in the Soviet Union and its plot feature of KGB agents trained in a special area in Russia set up to simulate life in small-town USA. The Talbot Odyssey (1984), about Soviet agents in the CIA, is pretty good too. And DeMille’s non-Russian oeuvre is also above average in the thriller stakes —for example, from what I’ve read, The General’s Daughter (1992) and Word of Honour (1985).
A Quiet End comes decades later on from these best-sellers, and it shows in plot and style.
Fancy a little pre-Christmas quiz? This is one for lovers of Russia-in-fiction detective stories. There is only one question, and it is an absolute doddle.
If the first murder victim in a Russia-in-fiction detective thriller is killed with a sickle, how will the second murder victim meet their grisly end?
Of course, to give you the answer might be seen as a spoiler by some —but I am not really one for this fastidious fad for being horrified at minor plot points being revealed. So here goes, the answer is …