‘I insist it’s Moscow Rules’: John le Carré’s Karla Trilogy and Sarah Armstrong’s The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt

My reading has veered off in a curious direction in the last couple of weeks. First, I found myself revisiting two novels in John le Carré’s Karla TrilogyTinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People – then reading Sarah Armstrong’s thought-provoking The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt, and then watching the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor. I suspect the Alec Guinness TV series will be next.

All, of course, are set during the 1970s at the height of the Cold War.

Le Carré’s novels detail the epic battle between master spy George Smiley and KGB supremo ‘Karla’ for the soul of the British Secret Intelligence Service.

Tinker Tailor draws heavily on the jaw-dropping 1960s revelations that high-ranking British MI6 officers such as Kim Philby had for decades operated as Russian double agents. Pretty much all Smiley knows at the beginning of the novel is that there’s a mole at the top of ‘the Circus’, and his against-the-odds quest to unearth the spy remains a brilliant and exhilarating tale. I love the original cover with its creepy Russian dolls, which perfectly captures the novel’s mesmerising ‘stories within stories within stories’ structure.

Sarah Armstrong’s new novel The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt (Sandstone Press) is a highly original Cold War thriller. Set in Soviet Russia in the mid-1970s, it traces the tensions and dangers of the period through the eyes of frustrated diplomatic wife Martha. She’s forged a marriage of convenience with childhood friend Kit: he needs to cover up the fact that he’s gay, and she needs an escape from her oppressive family and a dull English life. We follow Martha into the topsy-turvy world of Moscow, where she tries to make sense of the city and its inhabitants, and of a fraught political environment in which anyone can turn out to be a spy – sometimes even without knowing it themselves.

I loved this novel’s sense of place and the way it captures the Kafkaesque absurdities of Soviet life at the time (maps with areas left blank; demolished churches that are instantly ‘forgotten’ by Russian citizens). It also very deftly shows, like le Carré’s novels, that the lines between ‘them’ and ‘us’ are often very blurred.

So why this odd Russian turn? As with so many things these days, I’m going to have to blame Brexit, our very own murky, messy, political stew. There are still a number of unanswered questions about Russian interference in the 2016 EU Referendum, which I’m sure will one day make it to the big screen. And just as le Carré’s forty-year-old novels take on a new resonance in these turbulent political times, so they also provide some solace – particularly in their depiction of Smiley’s dogged pursuit of the truth, and his grit and determination when the chips are down.

*The quote in this post’s title comes from le Carré’s Smiley’s People. The termMoscow Rules’ signals the need to take utmost care on an operation, and is also specific set of rules – e.g. carry intel in a camouflaged fashion (such as in a pack of cigarettes), so you can discard it easily if needed.

Riel’s Resin (Denmark), Lier Horst’s The Katharina Code (Norway), and translated fiction on the up!

I’ve been reading lots of Scandi crime fiction in preparation for the Petrona Award judges’ meeting, which is coming up soon. As ever, the quality has been impressively high. Two I’ve read recently and really liked are Ane Riel’s Resin and Jørn Lier Horst’s The Katharina Code.

Ane Riel, Resin, translated by Charlotte Barslund (Doubleday 2018)

First line: ‘The white room was completely dark when my dad killed my granny’.

I’m oddly pleased that Riel is a Danish writer. While Denmark seems to have a knack of turning out fabulous TV crime dramas – first and foremost The Killing – it hasn’t been quite so hot in terms of its crime fiction. So reading this very interesting novel has felt like a treat.

Resin can’t exactly be termed a conventional crime novel, but as the first line shows, there’s a crime at the heart of the novel, and it is explored, at least in part, through the eyes of a little girl named Liv. Riel expertly pieces together the events that led to the crime, and in the process tells the story of a family that has turned inwards with tragic consequences. I particularly liked the way the story was narrated from a number of different perspectives within the family, and what it had to say about love, social isolation and the importance of community.

Jørn Lier Horst, The Katharina Code, translated by Anne Bruce (Penguin, 2018)

First line: ‘The three cardboard boxes were stored at the bottom of the wardrobe.’

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know I’m already a huge fan of Lier Horst’s ‘Inspector Wisting’ series, one of which, The Caveman, won the Petrona Award in 2016. Can he make it a double?!

The Katharina Code contains one of my favourite things – a really gripping cold case. Every year, Wisting gets out his notes on the disappearance of Katharina Haugen, who vanished from her house 24 years earlier, leaving only a mysterious ‘code’ on the kitchen table, ‘a series of numbers arranged along three vertical lines’. Soon, a new lead in another missing persons case will get him thinking about Katharina’s case in a radically different way. Beautifully written, as ever, this is a thoroughly entertaining and absorbing read.

If you’d like to see all the eligible titles for the Petrona, then take a stroll over to Euro Crime, where Karen has put together a lovely list.

In other news – it’s heartening to hear that sales of translated fiction are booming in the UK, in spite of (or perhaps even because of) Brexit. Overall sales of translated fiction are up by 5.5%, with more than 2.6m books sold, whose value is £20.7m. You can read more in Alison Flood’s piece over at The Guardian – ‘Translated fiction enjoys sales boom as UK readers flock to European authors’ – which also notes that Chinese and Arabic translations are doing well. One of the biggest sellers is our very own Norwegian crime-writing powerhouse Jo Nesbø.

And finally… In an odd twist of fate, Brexit has led me to try my hand at fiction for the very first time. Who’d have thunk it? In any case, I’ve written a darkly humorous crime story called ‘Your Nearest Brexit’, which is available here (under a pen name). It was great fun to write, and, as a reviewer of many years standing, I’ve learned a lot about life on the other side of the fence! All profits are going to the ‘Led By Donkeys’ billboard campaign, which is very wittily and effectively holding certain UK politicians to account.