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Death in Siberia by Alex Dryden

As Churchill mused gloomily in an October 1939 radio broadcast: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."

The circumstances, and fate, of the people who dwell within the enigma are the chief concerns of former intelligence operative Alex Dryden in his chilling espionage thriller Death in Siberia. It is no slight to Dryden’s narrative skill to note that despite the genre, he takes little from predecessors like le Carre in choosing to emphasize setting over plot.

He has good reason. Dryden – a pseudonym – spent many years as a specialist in Russian matters in his former career, and notes in the acknowledgements that in a brief 1990s window when the Kremlin permitted foreigners to visit the deprived Russian city of Norilsk, the local people were generous with their hospitality and information.

It is those hardy souls of whom Dryden is evidently thinking as he weaves his bleak tale of a police detective, Alexei Petrov, on the trail of KGB-agent-turned-defector Anna Resnikov as she heads to a military facility north of the Arctic Circle where a nuclear physicist is being held hostage by the government. Anna now works for the head of the world’s largest private intelligence company, and the captive scientist has made a breakthrough whose value to the West is equaled in size by its threat to Russian interests.

The chase would be menacing, and much more suspenseful, were it not for Anna’s supreme survival instincts and Petrov’s absence of malice. He is set apart from his peers by a strong sense of morality and apparent cognizance of the extremeness of Russian mores.

It is curious, then, that despite the fundamental goodness and wisdom of the central characters, the novel’s darkness is so hard to shake. Where other writers conjure enough twists and turns to discombobulate the most jaded readers of the genre, Dryden knows he needn’t bother. Instead, and to the reader’s edification, he plumps for a simple plot overlaid with references to the myriad horrors of the Russian-Siberian experience. He refers early on to the seemingly endemic nature of Siberian brutality, “the swishing of the old Soviet monster’s tail”, the millions whose deaths remain not only unavenged but unacknowledged. Stalin, he all but says, was the least of it – only Russia could have given birth to the Gulag.

Dryden’s professional experience and personal knowledge of Russia has him depicting a sociopolitical mindset in which there is no such thing as too great a sacrifice. To see the country (if the word applies) through his eyes is both grisly and enlightening, as he knits in matters as disparate as the plight of the native Evenk people, the Cossack invasion of Siberia, Putin’s expansionist aims in the Arctic Circle, the ‘pseudoscience’ of morphopsychology. A present-day storyline with constant historical reference can make for turgid reading, but Dryden’s deftness is unfailing.

The author’s final word, after wrapping his superb story, is one of thanks to the anonymous Norilsk contributors: “the sons and daughters of the slaves who built this dreadful place, where life expectancy is forty-six years.” For them, the Cold War never ended.

Previously reviewed on Coast FM.

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones


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