Russia in Fiction has a thing about novels published at key junctures in Russian history and set in that same time. (Just search this blog for ‘Chernenko’ to get an insight into how thriller writers saw the Soviet Union in 1984.)
Writing about the Soviet Union in 1991 took matters to a whole new level. In fiction and non-fiction, a good number of authors wrote about the Soviet future only for there to be no Soviet Union by the time their books were published. As a French language summary of The Red Defector put it:
Way before the death of Stalin became the title of a graphic novel which then in 2017 became a comic movie, banned in Russia, the actual passing of the Communist dictator in March 1953 provided the plot for several thrillers written by British writers.
The novel reviewed before this one —Robert Harris’s Archangel(1998)— begins on the day of Stalin’s death. John Kruse’s Red Omega (1981) develops the fictional notion that Stalin was assassinated. Barnaby Williams’s Revolution (1994) has Stalin suffocated by his Politburo subordinates.
The Kremlin Contract similarly has the theme of Stalin being assassinated. And almost all of its characters, on both sides of the Cold War divide, want him dead.
Hey, this is the Russia in Fiction blog — what’s with The Starlings of Bucharest? Have we gone all Romania in Fiction? Now that would be a struggle to get to our 100 reviews …
Well, rest easy. The Starlings of Bucharest is book two in the Moscow Wolves trilogy; at least, we assume it is going to be a trilogy. As regular readers of this blog know, pre-announced Russia-in-fiction trilogies are very much in vogue these days. See reviews of novels by Tom Bradby, Owen Matthews, and Ben Creed for further evidence.
Its title not-withstanding, The Starlings of Bucharest has many chapters set in Moscow. It is a terrific semi-sequel to the enjoyable The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt.
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.
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.
The Siberian Dilemma is the ninth of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, published nearly 40 years after the classic first in the series, Gorky Park (1981). Like the other more recent Renko novels, at least since Stalin’s Ghost (2007), The Siberian Dilemma is a relatively short, snappily written work.
It set me musing on two things in particular. It made me wonder what lies behind the shift amongst a number of long-established thriller writers from long and detailed to short and snappy? And, for entirely personal reasons, it reminded me of a meeting with the leader of the Russian Communist Party.
Jason Matthews comes to espionage fiction as a member of the ‘former spy’ school of writers. He is ex-CIA. The backcover blurb on Red Sparrow has veteran US thriller writer Nelson DeMille proclaiming that