Lenin’s Roller Coaster

Title:                      Lenin’s Roller Coaster

Author:                 David Downing

Downing, David (2017). Lenin’s Roller Coaster. New York: Soho Crime

OCLC:                    990105857

Summary”Autumn 1917: As a generation of Europe’s young men perish on the Eastern and Western fronts, British spy Jack McColl is assigned a sabotage mission deep in the heart of Central Asia, where German influence is strong and where he’ll be in completely unfamiliar territory. Despite his uncanny ear for foreign languages, there is much he doesn’t know about the cities he’s to infiltrate, or the people he’s to meet there. As he quickly realizes, the mission only becomes more dangerous the closer he gets to its heart. Meanwhile, the woman he loves, Irish-American suffragette journalist Caitlin Hanley, is in Bolshevik Russia, thrilled to have the chance to cover the Revolution. As the noose of anti-Russian government propaganda tightens around the American press, strangling the progressive and socialist workers’ movements, the Russians seem to be making strides toward equality, women’s rights, and real social change. Caitlin knows Moscow is where she is meant to be during this historic event–even if she is putting her own life at risk to bear witness. But four years of bloody war have taken their toll on all of Europe, and Jack and Caitlin’s relationship may become another casualty. Caitlin’s political convictions have always been for progress, feminism, and socialism–often diametrically opposed to the conservative goals of the British Empire Jack serves. Up until now, Jack and Caitlin have managed to set aside their allegiances and stay faithful to each other, but the stakes of their affair have risen too high. Can a revolutionary love a government spy? And if she does, will it cost one of them their lives? “– Provided by publisher.

Date Posted:      October 27, 2017

Reviewed by Jefferson Flanders[1]

It’s been 100 years since the Russian Revolution, and David Downing has chosen the world-changing events of 1917 as the backdrop for his latest Jack McColl novel, Lenin’s Roller Coaster. His globe-trotting protagonist, McColl, a British spy, holds much more progressive political views than, say, John Buchan’s resolute Tory patriot, Richard Hannay (who had little use for the infernal Huns or for the subversive Bolshies!): McColl has his doubts about British colonial policy and Whitehall’s approach to the revolutionaries seeking reform in Russia.

As the novel opens in the winter of 1917, the Allies and Germans face a bloody stalemate in the trench warfare raging in France and Belgium. While the Tsar has been deposed, the British hope to keep the Russians fighting the Kaiser on the Eastern Front. The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin wants Russia to withdraw from the war, which (along with his anti-capitalist ideology) make him persona non grata for the British and French.

McColl is sent on an undercover mission to Central Asia, ordered to stop supplies from reaching the Germans. After a series of harrowing adventures, he ends up in Moscow, where his lover, the Irish-American journalist Caitlin Hanley, has taken up residence covering the Revolution. There, London tasks McColl with a dangerous and morally-dubious mission—to assist the White Russians, the counter-revolutionaries conspiring against Lenin and his government.

Downing’s fictional account of the early days of the Russian Revolution in Lenin’s Roller Coaster is largely sympathetic, capturing the excitement and idealism of the feuding socialists and anarchists who thought they were on the brink of altering world history. They were, just not for the better—the 20th Century butcher’s bill for adopting Marx’s state socialism (Communism) approached 100 million dead. This creates a problem for Downing: readers in 2017 may find it difficult to empathize with those (like Caitlin Hanley) who fervently embraced the Bolshevik experiment with its inevitable descent into state terror. As historian Sheila Fitzpatrick noted recently in the London Review of Books, the current scholarly consensus is that: “If there is a lesson to be drawn from the Russian Revolution, it is the depressing one that revolutions usually make things worse, all the more so in Russia, where it led to Stalinism.”

In his concluding historical note, Downing acknowledges that the outcome of the “grisly Soviet experiment” makes it hard to understand “the inspiration provided by the original revolution—one that captivated millions of men and women in the interwar years and beyond…” Yet, there are disturbing echoes of that same ideological fervor in today’s challenges to liberal democracy mounted by populists of the extreme Right and Left in Europe and the United States. Radicalism is making a comeback. Sadly, the appeal of utopian solutions, whether socialist or nationalist, hasn’t died despite the sobering lessons of history.

[1] Flanders, Jefferson, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2017,” accessed at http://www.jeffersonflanders.com/2017/01/top-spy-thrillers-and-espionage-novels-of-2017/

The Master and Margarita

Title:                      The Master and Margarita

Author:                 Mikhail Bulgakov

Bulgakov, Mikhail (1967). The Master and Margarita (translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny). New York: Harper & Row

LCCN:    67022898

PZ3.B869 Mas2


  • “Published in the winter of 1966-67 in two issues of Moskva. About 23,000 words … which were omitted from the Moskva version, have been restored throughout.”
  • First appeared in Russian in the magazine Moskva in late 1966 and early 1967.

Date Posted:      May 3, 2017

Why would the devil pay a visit to a contemporary city, and what sort of business would he conduct there? What seems a fanciful premise was perhaps less so for a persecuted writer in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Mikhail Bulgakov completed his novel The Master and Margarita just before his death in 1940, but it remained officially unpublished until 1966, whereupon it achieved the status of an underground masterpiece.

In the book’s first chapter, the devil appears briefly to Berlioz, a literary magazine editor, as “a transparent citizen,” a “phantasm” (p. 8) that disappears after Berlioz closes and opens his eyes. Then, in the midst of a conversation between Berlioz and Ivan, a poet, about whether Jesus was real or fictitious, the devil appears to both of them and joins their conversation, looking only unusual enough to be thought “a foreigner” (p. 10). He is troubled by their atheism and their corresponding belief that humans determine their own fate. Besides assuring them that Jesus did in fact exist, the devil predicts the precise manner in which Berlioz will die, and he turns out to be right. Slipping on spilled sunflower oil in the third chapter, Berlioz falls onto the rails of an oncoming tram-car, which severs his head. From this beginning, we might assume that Woland (the name Bulgakov eventually gives the devil) will perpetrate evil and, while he is at it, prove the powerlessness of humans to predict or control the future. But the novel’s epigraph, from Goethe’s Faust, has prepared us for something else; it is a question asked by Faust, answered by Mephistopheles: “ ‘…who are you, then?’/’I am part of that power which eternally/wills evil and eternally works good.’ “

Insofar as Woland’s evil manifests itself in the sudden, menacing disappearance of various characters, as well as the deaths of Berlioz and Baron Meigel, he inevitably reminds us of how Stalin dealt with actual and potential political enemies. But Woland is also a force for good, as evidenced by his orchestration of the reunion of the novel’s other central figures—the master, an unnamed novelist whose manuscript has been publicly denounced and denied publication, and Margarita, his married lover. Moral ambiguity is central to the novel. As Woland says to Matthew Levi, “what would your good do if evil did not exist, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it?” (p. 360).

The interconnectedness of opposing ideas or concepts, frequently demonstrated by strange reversals, is one of the principles upon which the novel is constructed. Near the middle of the book, the personal secretary for the head of the Commission on Spectacles and Entertainment of the Lighter Type describes an encounter between her boss, Prokhor Petrovich, and Koroviev, one of Woland’s retinue. Annoyed by Koroviev’s assertiveness, Petrovich quickly loses patience, shouting, “What is all this? Get him out of here, devil take me!” Koroviev is only too happy to oblige: “Devil take you? That, in fact, can be done!” (p. 189). Petrovich is thereafter nothing but a suit, though one which continues to go about Petrovich’s business and speak with his voice. This incident is but one example of a running joke in the novel—its characters invoke the devil in a figure of speech, only to have their words make even more literal than figurative sense. Like all deeply funny jokes, this one is in the service of a serious idea. The distinctions we draw between the literal and the figurative—or between good and evil, real and imagined, life and death, art and reality, the material world and the spiritual world—have a certain kind of utility. They bring order to the randomness and chaos of personal experience. But they also limit our sense of what is possible. What Bulgakov’s novel suggests is that when order is imposed externally—such as the extreme measures employed by Woland to emphasize human powerlessness or by Stalin to maintain political power—the personal experience of those upon whom order is imposed becomes so detached from reality that the feeling of randomness and chaos is heightened, not reduced.

If Woland, despite his resemblance to Stalin, is too complex to fit inside a simple framework of good and evil, so too are the master and Margarita. It may be tempting to see the master as a representation of the pure artist made to suffer in an environment that can accommodate neither him nor his art. But we are given to understand, though indirectly, that Yeshua (the name given to Jesus in the master’s manuscript) considered cowardice among the worst of vices, and we must ask if it is not cowardice that causes the master to try to burn his manuscript. Also, when considering what the master’s fate will be, Woland agrees with Matthew Levi’s assessment that the master “does not deserve the light, he deserves peace” (p. 361). Is peace a greater or lesser reward than light?

Margarita is even more complicated. Though her husband is “young, handsome, kind, honest, and adore[s] his wife” (p. 217), only the master makes her happy. It’s never entirely clear whether Woland or the police are responsible for the master’s disappearance, but a member of Woland’s retinue, Azazello, offers to reunite them if Margarita will agree to become a witch and host Woland’s ball. Woland’s power frightens her, but she alone among the novel’s characters uses it for her own—often altruistic—ends. Perhaps the most striking example is Margarita’s request, when Woland offers her a reward for hosting the ball, that Frieda be released from her eternal torment, the nightly appearance of the handkerchief with which she suffocated her baby. Unlike Faust, Margarita is happy to have made her bargain with Woland; when she wakes up the morning after the ball back in the natural world, everything is “as if it ought to have been so” (p. 331). Is it her love, albeit adulterous, for the master that prevails? Is it her commitment to the value of his art? Since she and the master leave this world at the end of the novel, what kind of triumph does she achieve?

In a sense, Bulgakov’s novel follows them. The final chapter concludes in the supernatural world, and the epilogue concludes in the novel’s material world. But both ultimately end with the last sentence of the master’s manuscript, as if to suggest that only in art do we ever find complete resolution. Throughout the novel, Bulgakov has exploited art’s capacity to represent the unassimilable, the unfathomable, the illogical. At the same time, he reminds us of its related capacity to fulfill dreams. The results elicit terror, laughter, sadness, and wonder.


Mikhail BulgakovBorn in 1891 in Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine, Mikhail Bulgakov studied medicine at Kiev University, practicing briefly before being drafted by the Whites (anti-Bolsheviks) in 1918 as a field doctor. He was sent to the Caucasus, where, after leaving the military, he began working as a journalist. Along with humorous sketches, Bulgakov wrote White Guard (1924), an autobiographical novel about his experience in the civil war and one of the first serious works of literature on the subject. The Days of the Turbins (1926), a play based on White Guard, was supposedly one of Joseph Stalin’s favorites and helped establish Bulgakov as one of Russia’s preeminent playwrights.

However, the reaction of the press to Bulgakov’s plays in an ever more ideologically rigid society was hostile, and all of his plays were banned in 1929. He wrote to the government about his plight, and Stalin replied, sending him to work at the Moscow Art Theatre. Bulgakov adapted Gogol’s Dead Souls and Cervantes’ Don Quixote for the stage, but he also wrote plays about Moliére and Pushkin that portrayed the conflict between artists and repressive governments. His works were usually banned once they began public performances, and so Bulgakov took a position as a librettist with the Bolshoi Opera in 1936. In 1939, he attempted a return to drama, as well as the good graces of the Soviet authorities, by writing Batum, a play about Stalin’s early years as a revolutionary, but it was banned before rehearsals started.

Bulgakov began working on The Master and Margarita, his masterpiece, as early as 1928; he dictated the final revisions weeks before his death in 1940. In 1932, he married his third wife, Elena Sergeevna, thought to be a model for Margarita. Bulgakov knew he could never publish such a subversive novel during his lifetime. The existence of the manuscript was unknown to all but a small group of people until Moskva, a monthly magazine, finally published it, heavily censored, in two parts in 1966 and 1967.

The Charm School

Title:                      The Charm School

Author:                Nelson DeMille

DeMille, Nelson (1988). The Charm School. New York, NY: Warner Books

LCCN:    87034637

PS3554.E472 C48 19


Date Posted:      January 3, 2017


Starred for excellence in set decoration, a thriller whose Moscow backgrounds make up for a pivotal gimmick not far off from The Step ford Wives. Gregory Fisher, a 24-year-old MBA graduate, is driving through Russia in a glorious Pontiac Trans Am roaring with Janis Joplin and Bruce Springsteen when–just outside Borodino–he is accosted by an American fighter pilot (taken in Vietnam) who has escaped after ten years’ internment in a nearby secret Russian POW camp called The Charm School. The pilot tells Fisher he must warn the defense attaché in the American embassy in Moscow that nearly a thousand POWs are in the camp. But when Col. Sam Hollis, a damaged ex-fighter pilot and the Air Force attaché sets out to bring Fisher into the embassy, he finds that Fisher has been kidnapped and murdered by the KGB. Hollis and Lisa Rhodes, a cultural liaison, spiral ever deeper into a KGB plot centered around hiding the Charm School not only from the West but also from peacenik politicians rosy with glasnost and detente. Hollis is slightly at odds also with Seth Alevy, the CIA chief at the embassy, who is Lisa’s ex-lover. Both Hollis and Alevy believe the summit and arms talks should be dead and buried. Eventually, Alevy penetrates the Charm School after the KGB kidnaps Hollis and Lisa, and tries to turn them into spy-instructors. . .for what the Charm School does is turn out perfect Russian spies who have been groomed by American POWs: in the past 20 years, over 3,000 flawlessly well-spoken spies have been infiltrated into the States, become sleeper agents, agents in place, agents of influence, whether as computer operators or trash collectors at the CIA, not as conventional spies but something even more insidious: a Fifth Column encased in hyper-real Americanism. DeMille’s strong new maturity as a suspense novelist engaged with deep-running themes, first seen in 1985’s Word of Honor, has been set aside for highly engaging super-suspense padded with zipteen entertaining yards of Nick & Nora Charles sex banter and the intracultural ironies of spycraft.


[1] Kirkus, downloaded January 3, 2017

Our Kind of Traitor

Title:                      Our Kind of Traitor

Author:                 John le Carré.

Le Carré, John (2010, 2016). Our Kind of Traitor. New York, New York : Penguin Books

LCCN:    2016299847

PR6062.E33 O973 2016


Date Updated:  April 3, 2017

Our Kind of Traitor was produced in 2016 as a British spy thriller, staring Ewan McGregor, Naomie Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Damian Lewis, and Alicia von Rittberg. The film was released in the United Kingdom on 13 May 2016 by Lionsgate.

Reviewed by Chelsea Cain[1]

Everyone knows that pop culture is bonkers for brooding, romantic, dangerous types with underworld connections. I am speaking, of course, of vampires. But a long time ago, before Bella and Edward even started dating, there was another dark romantic hero who captured our imaginations. He was called a spy. He drank gin or whiskey, not blood. He was preferably English. Educated. And if he had to kill someone he did it like a gentleman, which is to say with a poisoned dart at the end of an umbrella.

John le Carré is to spy fiction what Lindsay Lohan is to TMZ. It’s hard to imagine one without the other. He is the papa of Cold War spy novels. (His literary agent must have wept when the Berlin Wall went down.) In his new book, Our Kind of Traitor, le Carré may not bring back the old-school secret agent, but he’ll certainly warm the hearts of those of us who long for the era before Jack Bauer, when spies quoted P. G. Wodehouse and wore mackintoshes.

Sure, Our Kind of Traitor takes place more or less in the present. Characters send text messages, and find that they cannot visit the gardens of the Champs-Élysées because “Michelle Obama and her children are in town.” The evil-doers are bankers, gangsters and money launderers, not the K.G.B.

But there is a filter of nostalgia that gives the narrative a jaunty midcentury feel.

Characters go on tennis holiday. Spies sing from “La Traviata” while cooking. Everyone speaks French. And Britain is a major player in a global conspiracy.

It all starts with the above-mentioned tennis holiday. Gail and Perry, a “strikingly attractive” and upwardly mobile English couple, find themselves caught up in espionage intrigue while practicing their backhands in Antigua.

Gail is a “sparky young barrister on the rise.” Perry is a former tutor in English literature at Oxford and an accomplished athlete. They have been together for five years and have yet to get married. (“Marry that girl,” almost every male character in the book tells Perry at some point.)

The couple are on Day 1 of their vacation. There’s some swimming. They make “languorous love in the afternoon,” then hit the tennis courts. Perry plays qualifiers for Queen’s and made it to the Masters; he is, in short, a bit of a tennis stud. It does not go unnoticed, and he is soon challenged to a match by a “muscular, stiff-backed, bald, brown-eyed Russian man of dignified bearing in his middle 50s called Dima.”

Perry agrees, and things quickly get hinky.

I mean, hello—Dima is wearing a crimson blouse with gray tracksuit pants, a diamond-encrusted gold Rolex and leather espadrilles. He’s clearly a very wealthy Russian crook. Or Mickey Rourke.

The match is set for the next morning. Perry and Gail show up at 6:45. (The kind of people who go on tennis holiday are also the kind of people who will get up before 7 a.m. on vacation.)

Perry wins. Naturally. He is a tennis stud, remember? But Dima is so impressed by Perry’s sense of fair play that he forgives him. In fact, “he’s not merely gracious, he’s moved to tears of admiration and gratitude.”

Oh, yeah. One tiny thing. Dima has a favor he’s hoping that Perry can help him out with: he wants to flee to England, spill some secrets about the Russian underworld and enroll his children at Eton.

Soon Perry and Gail are elbow to elbow with the British secret service trying to get Dima and his large sullen family to Mother England, a process that involves some enviable European travel.

Their contacts in the service are Hector, Luke and Ollie—their code names, I swear, are Tom, Dick and Harry. They are classic spy archetypes, morally complex but loyal to their calling.

It’s all a little familiar.

But le Carré’s execution is perfect. There are no narrative missteps. His gift at character shorthand is as strong as ever, whether he is describing “flaxen-haired boys, chewing gum as if they hated it,” or Gail’s first impression of Luke, whom she considers too small. “Male spies, she told herself with a false jocularity brought on by nervousness, should come a size larger.” It is always a pleasure to be in the hands of an entirely competent writer.

Le Carré pays his usual attention to plot. This one involves Russian gangsters and international banking—all very of-the-moment. I suppose le Carré is trying to be relevant. (The publicity materials even include a 2009 article from The Observer of London that echoes the narrative conspiracy.)

Yet the appeal of the book is not in its modernity, but in its stubborn embrace of the past.

Spies wear berets and fedoras. A vacationing teenager wears “a Hakka-style lampshade hat and a cheongsam dress with toggle buttons and Grecian sandals cross-tied round her ankles.”

This is le Carré’s universe, not ours.

All the better.

Le Carré made a name for himself by injecting a sense of moral ambiguity into spy fiction. But these days, post Watergate, post weapons of mass destruction, post Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne, institutional corruption and moral ambiguity are a given. Governments do bad stuff?

Well, yeahhhh. No duh.

It’s sort of thrilling to inhabit a world, even briefly, where characters are surprised when people and institutions fail to live up to their expectations.

Movie, Our Kind of Traitor

Baased on Our Kind of Traitor. Directed by Susanna White; screenplay by Hossein Amini, Lionsgate, 2016, 108 minutes, rated R.

Reviewed by John Kavanagh[2]

The new film adaptation of John le Carré’s 2010 novel, Our Kind of Traitor, co-produced by le Carré and giving him story-writing credit, touches on themes familiar from the author’s many post-Cold War books. Again, the KGB stand-in is a menacing international crime syndicate. Where in previous novels the author’s heroes were pitted against international narcotics networks, arms traffickers, and murderous third world despots, here the target is the Russian mafia—not the tattooed, strong-arm mafia intent on dockside smuggling and violent extortion, but the updated, improved version.

A millennial cadre is taking over the group, intent on spreading its tentacles by invading and corrupting the West’s banking and finance systems. The old leadership is to be eliminated. One marked for killing is Dima (Stellan Skarsgard), the group’s longtime bookkeeper. As the enterprise is set for expansion, Dima’s doom is insured by his stockpile of guilty knowledge, including the listing of various on-the-payroll British political and banking co-optees being bribed to facilitate the opening of a mafia-financed bank in London. Dima knows the only way out for him and his family is to barter with MI-6: his information in exchange for rescue and escape. He chooses as a go-between a casual vacation acquaintance, Oxford don Perry Makepeace, who, overpowered by the Russian’s rambunctious, outsized personality, agrees to deliver a message to MI-6.

His simple mission completed, Perry determines to return to his teaching, but both Dima and MI-6 ops manager Hector Meredith realize that Perry is the irreplaceable link between them, the tool needed to fulfill each man’s grasp for redemption, saving Dima and his family’s lives, and saving Hector’s faltering, discredited intelligence career.

And so both men, joined in a silent conspiracy, put Perry “into play.”

The reluctant amateur cast into physical danger and the moral morass of espionage, this is indeed le Carré territory. And the film, directed by Susanna White from a screenplay by Hossein Amini, is a tight-fitting, in parts engrossing vehicle that services le Carré’s reliably bright talents for plot and character development, intrigue, and spurts of exciting action.

But this is John le Carré, and the dark side must also be addressed, and so also tellingly delivered by the filmmakers are the author’s signature takes on the secret world’s penchants for hypocrisy, self-delusion, and betrayal. Most affecting, however, is Perry’s (Ewan MacGregor) ready empathy/identification with Dima, whose brutal, demanding “recruitment” of Perry doesn’t succeed because of coercion, but because Perry senses the braggart’s authentic vulnerability and fears for his family’s safety. As this tale’s authentic asset acquisition isn’t found in Hector’s deployment of Perry but rather in Perry’s willingly chosen, dangerous partnership with Dima, le Cane’s studied observation on the intelligence business is well taken. Personal bonds and genuine affection, shared values, friendship, so often cement the relations which lead individuals to face challenges and dangers together, for decades, or, in this story, for several desperate hours.

Many of le Carré’s stories end with reversal and defeat—the darkness prevails. A final twist in this film brings a satisfying moment of measured success. This is a very good spy film, a well-tuned melodrama, and in the telling, maybe for the first time, storyteller John le Cane keeps an arm’s distance from tragedy.

[1] Chelsea Cain (2010). “Double-Fault“, in The New York Times, Sunday Book Review (Octoberr 22, 2010), downloaded November 3, 2016. Chelsea Cain is the author of Heartsick. Her new thriller, The Night Season, was published in 2011.

[2] John Kavanagh in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 3, Winter 2016-17, p. 131).



Title:                      Legacy

Author:                Alan Judd

Judd, Alan (2001). Legacy. New York: Knopf

LCCN:    2002016262

PR6060.U32 L34 2003


Date Updated:  January 24, 2013

A still-serving MI6 officer [when the book was written] describes an authentic double agent case in fictional terms. Nigel West rates this as one of the Best Spy Novels written.

Rumor has it that Alan Judd served for more than 20 years in British foreign intelligence, ending up as the personal secretary of ‘C’, the head of M16. In other words, he knows the details of espionage, both British and foreign, as well as the secrets of the Western intelligence community in general, better than anyone else in the UK. He has the profound knowledge and deep understanding of the craft of intelligence to write books about spying, a background that cannot be matched by any other British or, for that matter, American writer on the subject. Every page of his Legacy testifies to the competence of its author, who has skillfully used his awareness of particular cases connected with the operations against the KGB and the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) from the end of the 1960s up to the end of the 1980s.

We are in John le Carrè territory in this Cold War spy story set in 1970s London. Charles Thoroughgood, whose name describes his character, has left the British army and joined the Secret Service as a trainee. By coincidence, a Russian acquaintance from university days shows up as a Soviet diplomat with a weakness for a particular London prostitute. Charles is taken out of his training course and told to approach his former classmate. When he does so, the Russian turns the tables on him by revealing that Charles’s own father, now deceased, was a long-standing Soviet agent.

The author clearly knows what he’s talking about, and includes valid descriptions of interesting. We also meet some quirky British characters in the best tradition of the cast of eccentrics created by le Carrè.

Judd differs from le Carrè in that he sees no more equivalence between the British and the Soviets. Whereas Le Carrè regards his characters as players in a game in which both sides observe the same rules more or less. Judd has no such scruples. He clearly sees the Brits as morally superior and the Soviets as utterly evil.

There are some surprises in this book which are not altogether surprising and the depiction of England circa 1970 seems more like the 1950s. Judd clearly brings out the upper class nature of the secret service, still the realm of public school boys and a few women from the “right” families and universities. His women are not convincing and the subject of sexual desire is handled as if it were an embarrassing social faux pas.