The best Russian thrillers past and future
By Oliver Johnson
Posted on April 30, 2015 in Books with tags
I’ve heard that the movie of Child 44, which I had been eagerly awaiting, is not the tin of Beluga that we were all hoping for…. Terrible Russian accents and no Russian actor in sight. I will have to say ‘nyet’ to it but here is a list of my favourite Soviet-era and future Russian thrillers instead. Warning: contains spoilers as to past and future Russian histories and has a heavy Brrrrr factor.
Well, we might as well start with the source of the Lada crash movie. In Russia in the early 50s Stalin’s Terror is coming to an end but denunciation and paranoia are the grim reality of Smith’s ingenious novel. Our investigator hero, Leo, is in a Catch 22 situation; tracking a child killer in a society that decrees that crime can only exist in the decadent West and never in the Soviet Utopia. Never has an atmosphere of constant fear been better evoked; genuine thrills, and the shadow of the gulag hangs over every page. One of the best thrillers of recent years.
Having read all of the above you might wonder why any society in its right mind would want to bring back the Stalin era, but this ingenious ‘what if’ thriller does just that. Historian Christopher Kelso is hot on the heels of a set of documents left behind at the Soviet dictator’s deathbed. After some sleuthing, Kelso tracks down a notebook, which turns out to be the memoir of a young girl impregnated by the dictator. There’s been a young Stalin hiding out in the deep woods near Archangel in the Arctic Circle for years! And he’s now of an age to step into papa’s inheritance…
I choose the second of my late friend Donald’s futuristic novels featuring Inspector Constantin Vadim. Also set in the Arctic Circle, expect gloomy snowbound forests, decaying Soviet-era nuclear submarine pens and permanent darkness. Vadim’s wife and an American consular official have gone missing and the only clues appear to be mythological signposts in the grim landscape and the predictions of the psychic of the title. Genuinely creepy and bizarre, this book perfectly evokes a once and future mythical Russia.
I know, what is it about the surname ‘Smith’ and these books? This is the mother and daddy of all Soviet-era thrillers, an inspiration to all other Westerners who attempted the same. This features a triple homicide and a mega conspiracy. Like Leo in the other Smith’s book, our hero Arkady Renko finds himself in a cleft stick, investigating the ruling class of Soviet Russia, the nomenklatura, in a no win situation. Fortunately for him, but unfortunately too, Renko suffers from a complex syndrome that gives him delusions of empowerment in the most disempowering society imaginable, so he will not be stopped. Gripping and brilliantly characterised, there have been many more Renko books since.
Considered the greatest thriller ever written by Philip Pullman and certainly one of my all-time favourite novels, this is the Coldest of Cold War thrillers, set in frozen Siberia. A coded plea for help from a secret research laboratory reaches Johnny Porter, a spy and Canadian Indian. He crosses the Bering Strait to the untracked Kolyma region, living on his wits and off the land and using many disguises, attempting to find out what terror is about to be unleashed upon the world. The book is famous for its sheer pace, the perfect evocation of the peoples of Russia’s Far East and is propelled by a jaw-dropping McGuffin that, though it might baffle others, will delight even the most entrenched of genre geeks.