As Russia marks the 100th anniversary of its double revolutions in 1917—the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, followed by the Bolshevik takeover—the country is also as prominent in the U.S. media as it’s been in years. Here, we look at the newest mysteries and thrillers that tap into Russia past and present, and that explore its ever-complicated role in world affairs.
19th Century and the Revolution: Regime Change
The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th saw great upheaval in czarist Russia, as the country geared up for revolution. In The State Counsellor by Boris Akunin (Mysterious, July), Det. Erast Fandorin, one of the czar’s key investigators, faces off against nihilist revolutionaries in 1891 Moscow and must discover which high-ranking police official is leaking secrets to them.
It’s the first book with Mysterious Press for Akunin, who has been mining this era for almost two decades, beginning with the 1998 publication in his home country of his first Fandorin mystery, The Winter Queen. Random House published that book, translated by Andrew Bromfield, in the U.S. in 2003 and continued with four more Fandorin books, most recently 2008’s Special Assignments, which PW’s starred review said “continue[d] to cement Akunin’s reputation as one of the finest contemporary authors of classic crime fiction.” The State Counsellor gives U.S. fans their first new Fandorin mystery in nearly a decade.
While Akunin’s hero works at some distance from the czar, Tasha Alexander brings her well-traveled series heroine into the Winter Palace with Death in St. Petersburg (Minotaur, Oct.), the 12th Lady Emily Hargreaves mystery and the series’s first foray into Russia. Lady Emily’s investigation into a ballerina’s death in 1900 takes her from the czar’s court to search the worlds of ballet and anarchist revolutionaries. “At that time everything was shifting, with an older order giving way to the new,” says Charles Spicer, v-p and executive editor at St. Martin’s. “You see the revolutionaries about to pounce and the czar and his family about to fall.”
The revolution presaged by these first two books has just come to pass in Lenin’s Roller Coaster by David Downing, which Soho Crime published at the beginning of March. PW’s starred review says it “gives readers unfamiliar with the issues of the time all they need to know.” British agent Jack McColl, in his third outing, is tasked with sabotaging a railway in Central Asia to prevent Germany from taking control of the region, while his lover, left-leaning U.S. journalist Caitlin Hanley, reports on the progress of the Bolsheviks. Juliet Grames, associate publisher at Soho Press, says that these “two foreign characters are a really neat lens,” offering an atypical perspective on the revolution.
WWII and the Cold War: Worlds Collide
Espionage was a potent tool in the Soviet arsenal, first against the Nazis and afterward in the protracted Cold War with the United States and the rest of the West. William Christie, a former Marine Corps infantry officer and the author of several works of military fiction, turns his attention to World War II–era espionage in A Single Spy (Minotaur, Apr.).
The standalone thriller centers on Alexsi Smirnov, a 16-year-old orphan who was raised by German expats on the Soviet Union’s border with Iran. In 1936, Soviet intelligence sends him undercover to Germany, where he infiltrates the Nazi spy apparatus and eventually gets the chance to thwart a plot to assassinate Stalin, F.D.R., and Churchill at the 1943 Tehran Conference.
Keith Kahla, executive editor at St. Martin’s, says that Christie based certain plot elements on events detailed in Soviet archives. PW’s review calls Smirnov “an engaging hero” and says that the author possesses “an intelligent understanding of political terrorism and the spy’s tradecraft.”
Sam Eastland’s Berlin Red (Opus, June) also sends a Soviet agent to Berlin in an effort to foil Nazi plans. In the final novel in Eastland’s Inspector Pekkala series, set in April 1945, Stalin dispatches his favorite agent to recover plans for an advanced guidance system that will give the already-powerful V-2 rockets pinpoint accuracy. Bonus: the British spy securing the plans is Pekkala’s long-lost fiancée.
After WWII, as tensions mounted between the Soviets and their former allies, some British and U.S. members of the espionage community who held Communist sympathies funneled information to the U.S.S.R. and eventually fled there. “For years I’ve been interested in what happened to the Western spies of the ’50s and ’60s who defected to Moscow,” says author Joseph Kanon, who has set several spy thrillers in the period immediately after WWII. “These were the spies recruited in the 1930s for ideological reasons, for whom communism became a faith. Did their belief survive living at the heart of the experiment?”
Kanon explores this question in Defectors (Atria, June), his first novel set in Moscow. Former CIA agent Frank Weeks, who defected to the U.S.S.R. in 1949, invites his younger brother, Simon, to Moscow 12 years later to help edit his memoir. Simon is both eager for and wary of the reunion, and finds himself caught between the conflicting motives of the CIA and KGB. Kanon, who received the Edgar Award for best first novel for 1997’s Los Alamos (Broadway), is most recently the author of Leaving Berlin (Atria, 2015), which has sold more than 53,000 print copies, per NPD BookScan.
1980s: The Beginning of the End
As former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States, author Ted Allbeury, a former British intelligence officer, imagined an even less likely scenario: a wealthy businessman with suspected ties to Moscow becoming president-elect. The Twentieth Day of January, originally published in the U.K. in 1981, was released in the U.S. 20 years later by Severn House as Cold Tactics. PW’s review at the time said the book presented “a thoroughly credible Cold War scenario” with “a flawlessly structured plot.” In March, Dover is publishing the newly relevant novel under its original name.
Jeff Golick, acquisitions editor at Dover, says that most of Allbeury’s novels “took a germ of an event and fictionalized from there, but this one wasn’t based on a real-life event at the time,” adding, “He was prescient, I suppose.” When Golick read the book for the first time, in 2016, “the parallels were uncanny, so resonant with current events, [I had to] publish it.”
Just prior to Reagan’s election, in protest of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. led a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. This, says Juliet Grames of Soho Press, “left room for countries like the Lao People’s Republic to suddenly be involved.” In The Rat Catchers’ Olympics (Soho, Aug.), Colin Cotterill sends his physician-sleuth, Siri Paiboun, to the games as a medical advisor to the Laotian team, many of whom, Grames says, are “country people from the Lao jungles, so some of them have jobs like being rat catchers.” Siri begins to suspect one member of his team of harboring a hidden agenda, and another is soon accused of murder.
The Present and Near Future: Russia Resurgent
The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and, more recently, accusations of Russian hacking in the November U.S. presidential election have catapulted Moscow back into the American consciousness.
Joshua Kendall, v-p, executive editor, and editorial director of Mulholland Books, says that fictionwise, the Russians “make good villains—they aren’t pure evil in the fictional sense, but there is this mysteriousness and opacity.” Several novels set in the present and near future mine that vein.
Series opener The Take, by veteran thriller author Christopher Reich (Mulholland, Jan. 2018), stars Simon Riske, an industrial spy for hire who has typically avoided high-risk missions. That changes when a Saudi prince is robbed of a briefcase containing a document that could alter the world’s balance of power; the Russians send an assassin to recover the memo, and the CIA wants Riske to do the same.
Jason Matthews, who served for more than three decades in the CIA’s Operations Directorate, closes out his Red Sparrow trilogy with The Kremlin’s Candidate (Scribner, Jan. 2018). Russian counterintelligence chief Col. Dominika Egorova, secretly a valued CIA asset, learns of a plot to install a Russian mole in a top intelligence position in the new U.S. administration. She sets out to discover the identity of the mole while funneling as much intelligence from Putin’s Russia to the CIA as she can before she is exposed. The first two books in the trilogy, 2013’s Red Sparrow and 2015’s Palace of Treason, have sold more than 106,000 print copies, per BookScan.
The threat of the Russian armed forces continues to present fertile ground for military thrillers. Walter Gragg, a military veteran and first-time novelist, envisions a massive Russian attack in eastern Germany in The Red Line (Berkley, May). (See our q&a with Gragg, “Ordinary Soldiers in Extraordinary Circumstances.”)
In Putin’s Gambit (Forge, June), Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs and crime novelist James O. Born describe an illegal monetary transfer that threatens the global economy, followed swiftly by a series of terrorist attacks and the martialing of Russian forces on Estonia’s border. Robert Gleason, executive editor at Tor/Forge, finds it notable that Dobbs signed the contract “even before Putin invaded Ukraine.”
Price of Duty (Morrow, May), the latest in Dale Brown’s long-running McLanahan thriller series, also combines economic and military attacks. Brad McLanahan and his Scion team are called into action when a devastating Russian cyberattack cripples Poland’s finances and panics the rest of Europe, eventually leading to a military air battle. Henry Ferris, executive editor at Morrow, says that Brown, a former Air Force captain, “is really up to date on military technology—what exists and what is about to exist.”
Eric Norton is a public librarian in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., and has reviewed books for PW since 2012.
Below, more on the subject of mysteries & thrillers.
These mostly contemporary titles are set in locales stretching across the vast territory of Russia and the former Soviet Republics.
In ‘The Red Line,' Gragg’s debut military thriller, a revived Soviet Union sends armored units into the heart of Germany to face isolated, unprepared U.S. forces.