Move over, Patriot; you may have just been dethroned as the lousiest Russia spy thriller ever written!
Today’s subject of my
ire review, Revenge of the Kremlin, hails from the SAS series by Gerard de Villiers. De Villiers was a French journalist and spy novelist. He began SAS in 1965, and before his death in 2013 managed to write some 200 books, five of which have been translated into English: Madmen of Benghazi and Chaos in Kabul (2014); and three Russia-related thrillers – Revenge of the Kremlin (2015), Lord of the Swallows (2016), and Surface to Air (2016). SAS is very popular in France and beyond, having sold an estimated 120 million copies worldwide. Readers and critics claim de Villiers possessed in-depth insider knowledge of espionage, geopolitics, and terrorist threats; and that his mastery of political intrigue led him to write books that anticipated crisis events, including the assassinations of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Publishers Weekly has called de Villiers’s books “blazingly fast” and “entertaining…Readers may wonder why American publishers waited so long to bring the series to this country.”
I don’t know what everyone was smoking, but can I have some? It would’ve made my reading experience with Revenge of the Kremlin infinitely more enjoyable. Heck, it might make this review slightly less unpleasant too.
In this tale of Russian score-settling and British willful blindness, oligarch Boris Berezovsky is found dead in his bathroom, an apparent suicide. But CIA freelancer Malko Linge suspects the Kremlin might be behind his death. His search for answers and justice will take him from England to Israel and finally to Russia. Linge’s task is complicated further by the fact that the whole Berezovsky case is classified by MI5 (Putin and Cameron signed a secret intelligence accord in Sochi – Litvinenko/Berezovsky cases dropped in exchange for business deals) and the FSB is out to get him. But as per the norm in these spy novels, the Russians are the most inept of masterminds, and Linge brings the ‘truth’ to light.
The story opens in Moscow, Spring 2013. Old spymaster Rem Tolkachev – an admirer of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka, we’re told – reads over a presidential decree that created a special unit within the GRU (military intelligence) that authorizes its members to travel to any country in the world to secretly kill anyone the Kremlin sees as a political/economic adversary, even without official government sanction – because that’s a foolproof decision any wise government would make. It is the return of the Soviet-era SMERSH program, one of a series of steps taken by Putin to go – wait for it – Back to the USSR™.
It would be the Soviet Union without communism […] power would be wielded with an iron fist, and any remaining opponents would soon be brought to heel. (p. 4)
Tolkachev, now head of this special GRU unit, will orchestrate the murder of Boris Berezovsky – first by using the “disinformation machine” to convince everyone that Berezovsky is depressed, broke, and down on his luck, then by sending FSB men to London to poison Berezovsky and make it look like suicide.
From my first few sentences you can probably identify one of Revenge’s main problems: amateurish prose. It’s clunky and clipped, with an over-reliance on telling rather than showing. Twelve pages in, before we’ve even met our spy protagonist, before Berezovsky is found dead or a proper investigation can begin, de Villiers has already exposed the mind, methods, and motive behind this murder. In fact, most of the first twelve pages of Revenge is exposition. It leaves nothing for readers to discover. At other points in the novel, explanations pull the reader away from potentially effective scenes, destroying narrative tension and suspense. The FSB comes in the middle of the night to kill one of Linge’s informants with sodium fluoride as she sleeps…and then de Villiers exposits how the poison will stop her heart, despite that very informant giving a detailed explanation of the poison’s inner workings just four pages prior.
Revenge is also noticeably less action-packed than other spy thrillers I’ve reviewed. No firefights or high-speed car chases here – it’s mostly the FSB poisoning people and Linge wandering round London, Tel Aviv, and Moscow searching for leads. Not that I’m complaining: I’d rather read something close to realism than pages upon pages of over-the-top BS, and I found descriptions of how the toxins worked fascinating. However, I did – and genre enthusiasts likely will – find the story played-out and uninteresting. De Villiers tells us the stakes are high, but his writing doesn’t show us that. Even Linge surviving a car crash is somehow rendered blandly. But at least there are fewer plot holes and absurdities than in Patriot:
- The CIA says it’s looking into the boyfriend of Berezovsky’s mistress, and then never mentions him again. (p. 37)
- One of Linge’s lovers and helpers, Irina Lopukin, dies, and Linge never acknowledges this.
- Linge is poisoned with ricin and survives. There’s nothing remarkable about him, so I’ll just assume he survived because he’s the protagonist.
- Linge says he wants to go back to London to kill Arkady Lianin, the FSB agent who tried to poison him. He doesn’t kill Lianin.
- The magical ineptitude of the FSB: the FSB knows exactly where Linge is in London at all times, but they can’t keep track of a rich girl with Kremlin ties on their home turf.
- The FSB tells Linge they are taking him to the Lubyanka, but don’t act on their “promise”. (p. 166)
Onwards to characterization.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually have to apologize to the characters in Patriot – because those characters at least had the depth and complexity of a blank sheet of paper. The characters in Revenge have the depth and complexity of dust motes.
Ladies and gentlemen, our lovely cast:
Boris Berezovsky is a Russian oligarch living in London, a filthy rich, possibly depressed criminal. He makes a brief appearance before his death and has no personality or character traits aside from the ones de Villiers tells us about.
Rem Tolkachev is the old Soviet spymaster orchestrating Berezovsky’s assassination. He’s loyal to the Kremlin and a trusted member of the administration. De Villiers tells us Tolkachev is pathologically honest and powerful, but we see neither of these traits in action.
Anita Spiridanova is Berezovsky’s mistress. She likes sex. She makes one scene and never appears again.
Gwyneth Robertson is an ex-CIA agent and one of Linge’s lovers. She likes sex. She barely has any bearing on the story, except to give tips and have sex with Linge.
Irina Lepukin is Alexander Litvinenko’s ex-girlfriend. She is angry about his death and offers to help Linge. She has high-level political connections. She likes sex.
Alina Portansky is the rich widow of a painter and one of Linge’s former lovers. She likes sex.
Arkady Lianin is an FSB agent sent to kill Linge. He has no personality traits, not even “evil”.
Vladimir Putin is the shadowy, distant “tsar of Russia”. He’s pragmatic, evil, hates traitors, and wants the return of the USSR. Also – f**k that wolfhound from Patriot – this fictional Putin has Kremlin Crow Companions!
You may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned lead spy Malko Linge yet – that’s because he’s probably the character I have the least to say about. After 240 pages, I know almost nothing about this man – not personality traits, not motivations, not backstory. Not even appearance. That’s right – de Villiers never describes what his protagonist looks like. This is even more odd considering some objects receive more attention than the characters using them. I really don’t care that the nerve agent was made in a military chemistry plant in the closed city of Shikhany in the Saratov region (p. 73) – how about you dedicate more space to fleshing out your main character?! All I know about him is that he’s a rich Austrian noble and likes to sleep around – two features that don’t exactly endear him to me!
Not dissimilar to Ted Bell, de Villiers thinks long stretches of expository backstory equal characterization. Fun fact: they don’t. I’m going to use Tolkachev’s description from p. 7, because it’s the most egregious example from the book, and the only one I paid attention to before checking out. It’s four pages long.
Born to an NKVD general in Sverdlovsk in 1934, Tolkachev was a classic silovik, a person who spent his entire career in the country’s intelligence agencies. Gorbachev had brought him into the Kremlin during the reorganization of the Second Directorate of the old KGB, now the FSB – the Federal Security Service.
[…] His heavy, steel-clad file cabinet held the most explosive secrets of two critical periods: the time immediately after communism faded and before the USSR’s collapse, and the post-Soviet period, a time of upheaval that saw the collapse of many values established over the previous seventy-five years. […] Though a man of incredible power, Tolkachev didn’t even have a secretary. But the head of every civilian and military security service knew they were to obey his orders without question. His name was one of the first ones they were given when they assumed their positions. He was the voice of the czar.
[…] A widower for the last thirteen years, Tolkachev hardly had any social life. He usually lunched at the Kremlin’s Buffet Number 1, where you could get a meal for less than 120 rubles. […] the armored gray cabinet behind Tolkachev’s desk held the files of the people he had used during the last twenty years. There were all there: siloviki, crooks, killers, gangsters, priests, and soldiers. Even the dead.
[…] The spymaster’s only pleasure was to serve the rodina – the nation – and its incarnation, the president.
Does it really take four pages to tell us that Tolkachev is a Kremlin loyalist? It would make for much stronger characterization if de Villiers put Tolkachev in a situation requiring him to exhibit said loyalty or honesty. Characters are defined not only by what authors tell us about them but by their actions within the story.
Oh, by the way – Tolkachev is a background character for much of the story. Almost none of this 4-page character (and office) description matters.
As one can imagine, sloppy characters have sloppy sex. Yes, Revenge has several sex scenes. They appear every few chapters or so. They’re horribly written, disgustingly pornographic, and halt the story dead in its tracks. I counted at least seven of them, though there could be more (reminder: I’d checked out after the exposition dump 12 pages in). Reading Revenge’s sex scenes is akin to watching a horrific car accident: you should probably call for help, and feel somewhat unclean watching, but you’re rooted to the spot for all the wrong reasons. For me, that reason was de Villiers’s lousy treatment of his female characters, in sex scenes and out.
‘You see that little b***h over there?’ asked Sukhumi quietly. He was pointing to a girl with dark hair, enormous breasts, and an ass so lovely, it could be in a museum. ‘Her name’s Nadejda. I saved her for you.’ (p. 145)
From being described as “a she-cat in heat” to always seeming “ready to f**k or be f**ked” (p. 120), female characters are defined primarily by their willingness to have sex with Linge. And the sex scenes are so frequent. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it probably wasn’t female readers who made SAS an international bestselling series. And I certainly would’ve slammed this book down, were it not for a burning desire to annihilate this spy “thriller”, which kept me pressing on.
Also – no Putin/Tolkachev sex scene? I feel cheated.
The president gave him an affectionate smile. He really did like Tolkachev. (p. 9)
What am I saying?
Okay, time to get serious. My previous points on weak writing, thin characters, and awful sex scenes could apply to any third-rate espionage thriller, but Revenge’s Russia messages are entirely its own. And they’re what you came for, right? Let’s get lower order concerns out of the way first. Transliterations of Russian words are weird – we get a man in a “militciya” uniform rather than militsia, and the Office of Special Affairs is osobie svyazi. (This seems off…дело also means “affairs” and I think it would be a better fit here – like in МИД – ministerstvo inostrannykh del – Ministry of Foreign Affairs.) Russian women’s surnames don’t have the proper feminine endings (we have Lepukin and Portansky instead of Lepukina and Portanskaya). And de Villiers demonstrates his in-depth insider’s knowledge of Russia by…rattling off every cliché about Russia and Russians known to man. Food for the klyukva-lovers:
- Russians are vicious.
- Every Russian woman is a sensuous nymphomaniac doll just dying to hop in bed with a Western man.
- Russians love vodka; it’s all they drink.
- All Russian citizens are auxiliaries of the FSB.
On modern Russia, de Villiers provides the usual boilerplate BS, best exemplified by this comment from Alina Portansky:
‘If you’re against the regime, you can never say what you think in public, or to your neighborbors. Vladimir Putin has re-created a kind of ‘soft’ totalitarianism, there’s no opposition left. But my fellow Russians don’t care. So long as they have vodka, good sausages, and a dacha, they don’t give a damn about politics.’ (p. 135)
And on the critical plot element – Berezovsky’s mysterious death – de Villiers has but one thing to say:
Putindunnit! Who else?
(If you aren’t fully convinced after the info-dump prologue, don’t worry – you’ll hear the fact repeated by Linge, the head of MI5, the CIA Station Chief in London, FSB men, Irina, Gwyneth, Alina, Lianin, and just about every person connected to Berezovsky that Linge talks to.)
If we read this novel with the author and current political climate in mind, then this is de Villiers’s understanding of Berezovsky’s death:
The Berezovsky affair didn’t affect Russia’s security. It was purely personal revenge. Sorta like how the Sochi Olympics was Putin’s personal vanity project. Putin killed Berezovsky because a) he had wanted to kill the oligarch for the past 10 years, and b) Berezovsky was due to testify in the Litvinenko case and was going to reveal important information that would embarrass Putin (p.65). The Russians did everything in their power to spread the idea that Berezovsky was at the end of his rope, bankrupt, and tired of living (p. 38), activating a massive disinformation machine that included Forbes (because as we all know, Forbes is very friendly to Russia). (Glad to see that ‘information warfare’ was in vogue before 2014.) The FSB killed the oligarch with sodium fluoride, an untraceable poison that made him look like he suffered a heart attack, then arranged the scene to make it look like suicide. Nobody stands up to the tsar.
I’ll leave readers to gather what they can from the above, as this review’s already 200 words longer than I’d prefer. Just note how easily Revenge confirms our conventional narrative of Russia and Berezovsky and you’ll be on your way…
I wish I could end this review on a humorous, snarky note as I did with Patriot, but Revenge of the Kremlin didn’t even give me enough material for that. And really, that’s part of why I consider Revenge to be the worse spy novel. While the two are similar in several ways (for instance, slant), Patriot had neoconesis, hokiness, and leaps in logic that kept me laughing even as I reached for the lighter, stick, and bag of marshmallows. What does Revenge have? Cheap writing, a cheap message, and a “protagonist” who can’t keep his hands off women. Patriot was funny-bad. Revenge was just bad. And when it comes to books, being blandly terrible is a worse sin than being comically or even offensively terrible.
*Kremlin Crow Companions* was a high point, though.
Revenge of the Kremlin by Gerard de Villiers. Translated from the French by William Rodarmor. Pub. 2015 by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. Paperback, 240 pages. ISBN13: 9780804169356.
Ugh, I think my little fiction run is over…time to get back to nonfiction.