In the early 90s, when I was a neophyte foreign correspondent, I covered the war in Yugoslavia. Its complexities were difficult, but one simple truth was easy to grasp: the varnish of our modern civilization is thin and easy to break. Breed fear, arm the militias, take over territory, turn neighbor against neighbor, and society’s spiral of death will begin swiftly.
In To the lake (Swift, £ 12.99), Yana Vagner’s thrilling debut, modern Russia follows suit. A deadly virus ravages Moscow and its surroundings. State media are giving orders, cities are cordoned off, bodies are piling up in the streets. The story is told through the eyes of Anya, who lives with her husband Sergey and their son Mishka in a posh housing estate. When Anya’s neighbor, Marina, ventures to Moscow, she falls into a nightmare: “Without raising her head, in a simple and ordinary voice, she described to us how the city was dying; how the panic started right after the quarantine was announced, how people started fighting in grocery stores and pharmacies. “
The disease is hideous; long and painful death. There are obvious echoes of Covid-19, but Vagner started making history in 2009 as a blog during a swine flu scare. The blog became a bestselling novel, first published online and then as a paperback in Russia in 2011, and the story has since grown into a Netflix series, under the same title.
Anya, her husband, her son, her stepfather and others quickly left in a convoy, heading north to an island where they hope to find refuge. The narrative structure follows an ancient archetype, dating back to Homer’s account of Odysseus’s return journey. It can be compelling, but Vagner keeps the plot moving by challenging his characters with obstacles and newcomers. The setting is colorful and precise, from steaming bowls of buckwheat porridge to snowflakes dancing in a blizzard, and the evocative translation of Maria Wiltshire adds an extra layer of fun.
Judas 62 (HarperCollins, £ 14.99) is Charles Cumming’s second winning outing for Lachlan Kite, an agent of Box 88, a secret Anglo-American mini intelligence agency. Cumming once again shifts the narrative between the present and Kite’s early work for Box 88, this time in Russia in 1993.
Impersonating a young English teacher in Voronezh, Kite is accused of extorting Yuri Aranov, a chemical weapons expert. The mission is a big demand for a relatively green agent. Cumming deftly portrays Kite’s inner life, from his doubts and tangled romances to the terror that squeezes your stomach when he blunders upon meeting a touch.
Like Anya in To the lake, Kite and his companions must flee – in their case to the Ukrainian border. Tension mounts as the border draws closer and the scenes of their arrival are heartbreaking. Moscow missed it the first time around, but almost 30 years later, Kite is again marked for death. This time, his agents are determined to succeed.
In Agent in Berlin (Canelo, £ 8.99), the first volume in a promising new series, Alex Gerlis handles an ensemble cast with panache. As Europe slides into war, Barnaby Allen, a British spy master, recruits a network of agents in Berlin – against the will of the horrified panjandrums at the Foreign Office and the city’s British diplomats. But Allen persists and soon has an American sports journalist, a Luftwaffe officer, a Japanese diplomat and the attractive Sophia, the anti-Nazi wife of an SS officer, in his books.
Gerlis, a former BBC journalist, vividly evokes everyday life in wartime Berlin where the rapids and the brave can still operate – right on – under the noses of the Gestapo. The horrors of the Eastern Front, where Sophia’s husband Karl-Heinrich serves, are little described. Instead, we see the toll that mass murder can impose on even the truest believer. One morning, Sophia finds him staring at the wall, drinking and smoking, with red eyes and gray skin. “Thank goodness you have no idea what it is, Sophia,” said Karl-Heinrich. “We are doing our duty and it must be done, but. . . At what price?”
Finally, a brief mention for a beautiful new series of thrillers published by Pushkin Press in association with Walter Presents, the splendid sub-channel of Channel 4 devoted to foreign crime and thriller TV shows. In The scorpion head (translated by Laura Watkinson, Pushkin Press, £ 9.99) Flemish writer Hilde Vandermeeren weaves a clever story, alternating between Gaelle, who wakes up in a Berlin mental hospital, and Michael, a hit man working for the sinister Scorpio organization that was supposed to assassinate him. Even murderers have hearts sometimes, but that flash of conscience can come at a cost, as Michael soon learns.
Adam LeBor is the author of ‘Kossuth Square‘, a black crime thriller from Budapest
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