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.
Here at the Russia in Fiction blog, we are interested in how Russia is portrayed in English-language fiction. Whether that fiction is any good comes into the reviewing too of course, but the tropes and plot devices and imagery and assumptions of a remaindered thriller can still fascinate as insights into popular perceptions of Russia at any given time.
James Steel’s December serves as a great example for taking the ‘how Russia is seen’ temperature. From title and front cover blurb, at the end of this century’s first decade, that temperature is low.
Stephen Coonts is at the forefront of the book-a-year thriller writer stable, and has been since the 1980s. Like many others (Tom Clancy, Stella Rimington, Daniel Silva, to name but three of a long list), he often writes about the same characters — in the case of Coonts, the chief protagonists in his fiction are Admiral Jake Grafton and CIA officer Tommy Carmellini.
Coonts less often writes about Russia, but even that, he does with relative frequency —for example, The Red Horseman (1993), Fortunes of War (1998), and Wages of Sin (2004).
What Coonts does, he does well; namely, snappy and well-plotted action thrillers. He is an ex-military man and, from what I have read —basically, the Russia-related titles named above— his politics seem to be patriotic American.
The Senility of Vladimir P. is a cleverly crafted, multilayered novella that works on a number of different levels. If you had never heard of Vladimir Putin, you might well still be engaged by the story of an honest man, Nikolai Sheremetev, in a corrupt world. Sheremetev is drowning in a dilemma, the only escape from which appears to be thieving and bribery.
That the honest man in question is the full-time carer of an aged and dementia-stricken Vladimir Putin creates a conceit that allows The Senility of Vladimir P. to explore the Putin era in Russia and its legacy.
Le Carré books stand out from the crowd. They are atypical in the world of thrillers, and Russia-related thrillers. Not for them the fast-moving plot-based story packed with clichéd characters. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the finest Russia-related espionage novel ever written. (The Honourable Schoolboy runs it very close, but has little to do with Russia). Whether it is a thriller is a different question. It represents rather the thriller as literature.
Our Kind of Traitor has of course the main Le Carré traits, but, like several of his later books, it is a slighter work than his greatest novels.
Christopher Reich’s third book very much merits the description of Russia-focused thriller. And a turn-of-the-century one at that, with the plot revolving around oligarchs, violence, and financial misdeeds.