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.
It is a happy coincidence that the Russia in Fiction blog is being written at a bumper time for Russia-in-fiction trilogies. We are in the middle of those by Sarah Armstrong and Ben Creed. The final one of Henry Porter’s Paul Samson series was published in April of this year, followed the next month by the last in Tom Bradby’s Kate Henderson series (the first is reviewed here, the third is mentioned here). And we are certainly at the end of the Dominika Egorova trilogy by Jason Matthews, as he sadly passed away a few months ago (again, the first is reviewed here).
And now his namesake Owen Matthews brings us the second in his Alexander Vasin series.
Red Traitor differs from the first novel in the series, Black Sun (2019). Black Sun was very much a detective story, and notable for its plot being contained geographically and culturally in the distinctive and little-known world of the Soviet closed city.
Red Traitor ranges more widely. In genre terms Red Traitor moves onto the ground of the international relations thriller, with sonar-pinging echoes of Tom Clancy’s early work.
Part two of this review is here
Future war books are a distinct sub-genre in Russia-in-fiction novels. Over the coming months this blog will review several. Others we will snub.
[Update — review of Red Metal (2019) posted 10 August 2021]
Russia in Fiction approaches such books with a couple of specific prejudices. We are not into military stuff per se; endless eye-glazing pages about high-tech weaponry, artillery placement, and military tactics. Yawn. And we are wary when such books —as sometimes—are more political manifesto than readable fiction.
Red Army side-steps both of these elephant traps with ease. Ralph Peters has written a superbly original account of a war that never was.
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.
(published in the US as Radiant Angel)
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.
(Part one of this review is here)
Black Sun is set in a world on the turn.
It is a thriller bathed throughout in its titular saturnine radiance, emanating from RDS-220, the Tsar Bomba – to this day the most powerful explosion ever created by humankind.
(Part two of this review is here)
As a thriller, excellent. From the Russia-in-fiction perspective, first class.
Black Sun is a superior and original whodunnit set in the closed city of Arzamas-16 in October 1961, the week in which the Soviet Union tested the biggest nuclear weapon ever exploded.