It is a rare thing for a Russia-in-fiction novel to not have Moscow or St Petersburg in it. Yes, there are several that are set elsewhere in Russia, but even these tend to at least visit one or both of Russia’s current and former capitals. Kolymsky Heights is so absolutely determined to avoid them that its central character —sent into Russia by the CIA— enters and leaves by sea from the Far East of the country.
And ‘enters and leaves’ barely covers it. Jonny Porter’s journeys into and out of Russia are perhaps the most convoluted crossings in all the books reviewed on this blog. They take up about a third of this nearly 500-page story.
We will shorten them to a couple of sentences. Porter gets into the Far East of Russia disguised as a Korean seaman, working his passage on a Japanese trading vessel sailing from Nagasaki to Murmansk. He gets out across the ice of the frozen Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska, shot at and shelled by pursuing Russian soldiers.
But before getting too far into the rather fantastical plot of Kolymsky Heights, let’s retreat a little into context.
Brian Garfield’s thriller Kolchak’s Gold takes on the mystery of what happened to the gold reserves of the Russian Empire after the revolution of 1917.
This is a made-for-fiction mystery. It is known that the gold —which had been transported to Siberia from St Petersburg during World War One to prevent it from falling into enemy hands— came under the control of the overall leader of the White movement in the Russian Civil War, Admiral Aleksander Kolchak.
The People’s Act of Love, once read, forms impressions in the mind. Innovative in its setting, memorable in its characters, inventive in the slow-burning complexity of its plot, and deploying language with the savage precision of a cavalryman’s sword decapitating an enemy at full charge; James Meek’s novel delves into lives lived in extremis, as its characters act and love and seek to merge the two.
What is an act of love? Selfless? But selflessness is mediated through self. People do not act alone in an abstract world, be that the abstraction of Marxist ideology or of sectarian theology. Actions affect others, whether they are as close as a spouse or as distant as nameless, unborn, future generations.
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.
The Cold War is dead, but Russia’s ambitions continue to rage.
So proclaims the front cover blurb of this 2011 thriller, in a bombastic non sequitur that typifies the return of ‘big bad Russia’ to Western thriller writers’ armoury at the end of this century’s first decade.
The Cold War ended at the end of the 1980s. For a decade or more, if thriller writers wrote about Russia, they wrote of decline and gangsterism. Then as a recovering Russia reasserted itself on the international stage, it once more became the ‘other’ against which Western spies and governments fought.
Russia in Fiction reckons that this return to a portrayal of Russia in these terms can be dated to around 2010. Alex Dryden was one of the earliest authors to embrace it.
Billionaire Russian businessman Roman Gorsky lives a life beyond imagining in terms of material wealth. Anything he wants, he buys. In London —Chelsea to be precise— he is converting a former barracks into a super-luxurious home, designed by the world’s leading modern architect.
First person narrator Nick —like many in this novel, the young Serbian is an immigrant to international London— works in a bookshop and is commissioned by Gorsky to stock what will be ‘the best private library in Europe’.
But can money buy love and happiness? Gorsky is certainly giving that a go. Both the location of his mansion, and the content of his library, are aimed at winning over Natalia, a beautiful Russian married to Englishman Tom Summerscale.
But Gorsky is too sophisticated a book to be a simple ‘money can’t buy you everything’ morality tale.
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.
If you want your Russia-in-fiction tropes, Moscow at Midnight provides a collector’s cornucopia, and does so with style and originality.
As part one of this review observes, McGrane provides so many Moscow references that it might sound as if she reduces them to a passing mention, or, in one of her many memorable phrases, ‘a strange kind of Baedeker’.
Whilst there are occasional hints of that, Moscow at Midnight elevates its location with lyrical and evocative descriptions.
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.