The Tuesday Night Club is a group of Golden Age crime fiction fans, writing on a different theme each month. A frequent contributor, and one of our founder members, was the wonderful Helen Szamuely, who died in April. There’s an obituary for her here, and a personal memory from someone who obviously knew her well here. And there's more of an introduction to her in my previous posts.
We have decided to nominate May as a tribute month:
Bev Hankins has done the splendid Helen logo for us.
I am collecting the links this month, so check back here to catch up on the other posts.
Kate at Cross-Examining Crime is writing about a crime short story by Anton Chekhov
My first post for the month was on a book Helen Szamuely recommended to me - Murder a la Mode by Eleanore Kelly Sellars; then I looked at crime writer Helen McCloy’s Two Thirds of a Ghost. Last week I looked at John Le Carre’s classic Our Game - about the aftermath of the Cold War, about what happened to the now redundant spies: a true subject for Helen.
This week I’m looking at a brand-new book (it will be published on 1st June), but one that is set in 1961, and looks at the fate of spies who defected to the Soviet Union. Again, right up Helen’s street.
Defectors by Joseph Kanon
[1961. Simon Weeks is visiting his brother Frank in Moscow: Frank was a Soviet spy who fled to the USSR when he was about to be uncovered]
Red Square. A place he’d seen in a thousand photographs, filled with tanks and military saluted and politburo members who disappeared from the pictures a year later, airbrushed from memory. He’d always imagined a gray ceremonial square, boxed in by Kremlin towers, but instead it was open and bright, flooded with light, the onion domes of St Basil’s at the far end swirls of colour, GUM department store frilly and ornate, something a child’s illustrator might have dreamed up. People hurrying across to work. Anywhere. He looked at the high fortress walls. Where Stalin had sat up at night putting check marks next to names on a list. Names he knew, names other people knew, names that struck his fancy. Terror had no logic. Check. Gone. Night after night.
[Simon attends a lunch party at a dacha, attended by a number of defectors]
Joanna had sun for her party, a spring day warm enough for summer. A long wicker table and chairs had been set up on the lawn, something out of a tsarist era photograph, the family posed around an outdoor table… revolution just a thundercloud away. Now there were bottles of Georgian wine and Hanna Rubin in a dowdy sundress.
commentary: Often spy novels are quite sprawling, spanning a long period of time, perhaps a double timeframe, and travelling with the agents from one place to another. This book is the opposite: it almost resembles a Greek drama in its unities. It takes place over the course of a couple of days in 1961, and 90% of it is set in Moscow. There are tempting memories for the characters, but Kanon refuses to go in for the usual flashbacks.
It’s a great setup: Simon and Frank Weeks are brothers, sons of an important and highly respectable (and one guesses rich) American political family. They were born to rule. But 12 years earlier, Frank had been exposed as a Soviet spy, and only just managed to escape to Moscow, where he’s been living ever since. Simon’s own diplomatic career was ruined, but now he is a publisher. And he has been given the chance to publish his brother’s memoirs, and has flown in to go over the MS with him, to sort out the details. It turns out that Frank’s wife Joanna (who is in Moscow too) has some history with Simon. Of course both brothers are under constant surveillance.
It is a most winning assembly of circumstances: you know it’s not just going to be about copyright and the royalties – something is going to happen. And Kanon turns it all into a great, enthralling and very tense book: this is a fabulous read.
Frank is an amalgam of some US and British spies – but has a lot in common with Kim Philby: not so much the history (though anyone familiar with the story will be substituting ‘Albanian’ for ‘Latvian’ at certain points), as the attitudes and the positioning and the post-defection life. Frank’s book is to be called ‘My Secret Life’, Philby’s very similar book is called ‘My Silent War’.
Significantly, Philby is just about the only real-life spy of the era not mentioned in the book – several of them have walk-on roles. Then there is the lunch-party at the dacha (weekend house in the country) in the second extract above – other (fictional) defectors attend, and it is a particularly compelling scene, I wished it would go on forever.
But I also loved many of the other scenes as they travelled around Moscow, and later the then-Leningrad, and the occasional fascinating comments. Frank points to
‘Gorky Street… Everybody wanted to live here then. You know, Moscow’s still medieval that way – people want to be close to the castle, to the center.’Perhaps even un-American rather than mediaeval?
There’s quite a dreamy atmosphere to the first half: to describe it as ‘slow’ would be quite wrong, but it skims along nicely as you try to work out what is going on. It explodes into action around half way through, and becomes almost unputdownable. It is extremely well-plotted, and full of unexpected events, right through to a strangely touching ending.
Throughout the book, the Americans are referred to as the Agency (CIA) and the Russians as the Service (KGB). I (not being a spy) did occasionally have to think which was which. And a point was made in the book that I’ve often thought: ‘Defectors’ is the title of the book, and I have used the word in this post, but:
‘It’s a funny word, defector. Latin, defectus. To desert. Lack something. Makes it sound as if we had to leave something behind. To change sides. But we were already on this side. We didn’t leave anything.’It’s not an overlong book, but it also fits in, alongside the tense and compelling plot, considerations of the life of a Western spy resettled in the USSR, the meaning of being an agent or a spy, the moral considerations, the philosophies involved.
Anyone who likes spy fiction will love this book… I have read and enjoyed several excellent books by Joseph Kanon, and this is the best so far.
The top picture shows the British spy Guy Burgess in Red Square Moscow, with Tom Driberg, a British politician who visited him there.
The painting is by Aleksandr Gerasimov showing a young woman at a dacha in 1912. I found it on Wikimedia Commons: it had been picked up from this site.