The horrendous poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury city centre on the 4th March 2018 was the inspiration for Sergei Lebedev’s latest novel Untraceable. Set in the opaque world of Russian Intelligence, it covers a particularly sticky period in Russian history, from the 1930s right up to the 1990s.
Three people power the story: Professor Kalitin, chief chemist and developer of the fictional poison Neophyte; Uncle Igor, a god-father type character, and Lieutenant Colonel Shershnev, a special forces operative.
The mysterious Uncle Igor is an alluring personality. In the early scenes of the book we enter a lavish Russian Easter celebration he is hosting. By holding such a party, he is blatantly flouting Soviet regulation. But this is The City, Lebedev’s term for the walled community for KGB agents, party officials and chief scientists, who live by their own rules. The author’s evocation of this covert world is artfully conveyed and this is where the author is at his best, evoking mysterious, labyrinthian societies.
If Uncle Igor is flamboyant and opaque, Kalitin, his supposed nephew is just opaque.
Fast forward in the book to Kalitin’s exile in the West. The mystery of the chemist’s life unravels in a series of flashbacks, jumping back and forth in time, sometimes overly so. The reader begins to understand why Kalitin is an emotional cripple and has put all his passion into delivering the most precise and deadly of neurotoxins, which kills without trace.
I was tested by the jumps in time in this novel but was impressed with the author’s rigorous research into what was happening in the laboratories over the years. Scenes described in the book ring true. The cruel experimentation of Neophyte on animals in particular. The Island, where the gory research takes place, is a dangerous place for the local population. Over a generation growth defects and ill health start to appear. Sound familiar? Chernobyl is mentioned.
Lebedev’s delving goes as far back as the Nazi-Soviet Pact years, when German scientists collaborated on projects to develop poisons with their Russian counterparts.
The inclusion of Lieutenant Colonel Shershnev in the story, brings us into the Russia of the 1990s, the post-Soviet era. Suffering from PTSD after fighting in Chechnya and Syria, Shershnev is hired to track down Kalitin who has become an embarrassment to the present regime. His protracted mission is hampered by numerous obstacles. The plot loses pace at this point but the story becomes more realistic and humane.
What I was most conscious of, and appreciative of, reading this book, was that I was reading an authentic Russian voice (all be it in translation). So often our knowledge of Russia is one gleaned from a non-Russian writer. A John Le Carré spy novel for example may be beautifully crafted but so obviously British.
Lebedev gives us a clear insight into the problems Russia has faced and still faces in governing itself where a climate of fear eradicates trust. In this context, neurotoxins, products from the past, are still used to devastating effect. It is a chilling thought.
Untraceable is an ambitious work, one which goes far beyond the spy thriller and will appeal to those interested in Russia and the story behind the Salisbury poisonings.