The best espionage novels cater to our fantasies while still persuading us of the authenticity of their worlds. Of the titles published this year, two stand out in the field, and each author understands that, in fiction, veracity is not the same as authenticity. In Hemingway’s words: ‘All good novels have one thing in common. They are truer than if they had really happened.’
White Fox (Bantam, £18.99) is the concluding volume of a trilogy of thrillers by Owen Matthews, one of the best of many western writers on Russia. It can happily be read on its own, though it is sufficiently gripping to send readers back to the earlier two books. It begins in 1963, shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy. Matthews’s protagonist, Alexander Vasin, a KGB officer, is now the director of a labour camp deep in Siberia, having effectively been exiled by his enemy and superior, General Orlov. After a prisoner arrives with armed escorts, Vasin is mystified when Orlov orders the escorts to be killed. It soon emerges that the new arrival has a secret which Orlov’s distant superiors are desperate to keep from getting out: Lee Harvey Oswald shot the American president on the orders of the KGB.
When the inmates of the camp revolt, Vasin and the mysterious prisoner are forced to flee. What follows is an extended chase in which the hunted are themselves also hunting – for the truth: it is a kind of Russian version of The Thirty-Nine Steps. A lot of groundis covered, literally: the action moves from the frozen tundra of the camp to a village west of Kirov, where Vasin is stranded for three days, then to Leningrad and the magnificent Catherine Palace.
Throughout, we are deeply immersed in a Soviet Russia vacillating between persisting pride at defeating the Nazis and misery at the failure of victory to make Russia a happier place to live in.