Tue. Dec 7th, 2021

Back in the early 1990s, when I was a neophyte foreign correspondent, I covered the Yugoslav war. Its complexity was challenging, but one simple truth could be easily understood: the veneer of our modern civilization is thin and easy to break. Create fear, arm militias, seize territory, turn neighbor against neighbor, and society’s death spiral will begin quickly.

In To the lake (Swift, £ 12.99), Yana Vagner’s captivating debut, modern Russia follows the model. A deadly virus destroys Moscow and its environs. State media issue orders, cities are sealed, bodies pile 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 flashy housing development. When Anya’s neighbor, Marina, ventures to Moscow, she walks into a nightmare: “Without raising her head, in a normal ordinary voice, she described to us how the city was dying; how the panic started immediately after they announced the quarantine, how people started fighting in grocery stores and pharmacies. ”

The disease is abominable; death stretched and painful. There are clear echoes of Covid-19, but Vagner started writing the story in 2008 as a blog while a flu epidemic swept through the Russian capital. The blog became a best-selling novel, first published online in 2011 and then in paperback in Russia, and the story has since become a Netflix series, under the same title.

Anya, her husband, son, father-in-law and others soon left in a convoy, heading north to an island where they hope to find a refuge. The narrative structure follows an ancient archetype and reaches back to Homer’s version of Odysseus’ journey home. This can be limiting, but Vagner keeps the plot going by challenging her characters with obstacles and newcomers. The scene environment is colorful and precise, from steaming bowls of buckwheat porridge to snowflakes dancing in a blizzard, and Maria Wiltshire’s evocative translation adds an extra layer of enjoyment.

Jude 62 (HarperCollins, £ 14.99) is Charles Cumming‘s winning second outing for Lachlan Kite, an agent for Box 88, a mysterious Anglo-American mini-intelligence agency. Cumming once again moves the story back and forth between the present day and Kite’s early work for Box 88, this time in Russia in 1993.

Kite, posing as a youth English teacher in Voronezh, is accused of withdrawing from Yuri Aranov, a chemical weapons expert. The mission is a big demand for a relatively green operation. Cumming deftly depicts Kite’s inner life, from his doubt and entangled romance, to stomach-churning fright when he mistakes while meeting a contact.

As Anya in To the lake, Kite and his companions must flee – in their case to the Ukrainian border. The tension increases as the border approaches, and the scenes of their arrival are nail-biting. Moscow missed him for the first time, but almost 30 years later, Kite was again marked for death. This time, his workers are determined to succeed.

In Agent in Berlin (Canelo, £ 8.99), the first volume of a promising new series, Alex Gerlis handles an ensemble cast with panache. As Europe slides toward war, Barnaby Allen, a British spy master, recruits a network of agents in Berlin – against the wishes of terrified foreign office panjandrums and British diplomats in the city. But Allen persists and soon has an American sports journalist, an Luftwaffe officer, a Japanese diplomat and the alluring Sophia, the anti-Nazi wife of an SS officer, on his books.

Gerlis, a former BBC journalist, vividly evokes everyday life in a wartime Berlin where the fast and the brave can still – only – operate 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 claim on even the true believer. Sophia gets one morning staring at the wall, drinking and smoking, his eyes red and his skin gray. “Thank God, you have no idea what it’s like, Sophia,” says Karl-Heinrich. “We are doing our duty and it must be done, but. . . at what price? ”

Finally, a brief mention for a great new series of thrillers published by Pushkin Press in association with Walter Presents, Channel 4’s beautiful subchannel devoted to foreign crime and thriller television programs. In The Scorpio’s Head (translated by Laura Watkinson, Pushkin Press, £ 9.99) Dutch crime writer Hilde Vandermeeren weaves a clever story, alternating between Gaelle, who wakes up in a psychiatric hospital in Berlin, and Michael, a hired killer who works for the sinister Scorpio organization works that is supposed to kill her. Even assassins sometimes have a heart, but that flash of conscience can come at a high cost, as Michael soon learns.

Adam LeBor is the author of ‘Kossuth Square‘, a Budapest noir crime thriller

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