Red Traitor by Owen Matthews—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

“There was not a moment of Vasin’s waking or sleeping days…where Vasin was not surrounded by reminders of the power of Lieutenant General Yury Orlov. He felt as trapped as a dragonfly in glass.”

Set in 1962, less than a year after the events of Black Sun in which KGB investigator Alexander Vasin narrowly averted a nuclear disaster, Red Traitor by Owen Matthews follows Major Vasin as his successful rise in the KGB has meant just so much more scrutiny from among its ranks. Following the threads (real and invented) established at the end of Black Sun, Vasin must maneuver GRU Colonel Oleg Morozov into revealing himself as a possible American spy while the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds in the Caribbean, all the while keeping himself abreast of the machinations of his own boss, General Yuri Orlov. The Moscow-based espionage plot that makes up half of the novel incorporates many of the themes, suspense, and gambits that made Black Sun excellent.

“‘That’s how our glorious Soviet Motherland works. Punish the innocent, leave the guilty at their posts.’”

To the investigative spy plot of Moscow, Matthews adds another plotline following submariner Vasily Arkhipov, who a year previous was among the only survivors of the K-19 submarine nuclear reactor accident that left most of his crew dead and him with a promotion. Selected for his prowess of surviving the traumatic ordeal of K-19, which has left him cautious of all things nuclear, Arkhipov is given fleet command of a secret group of submarines sent to run the US blockade of Cuba and, if threatened or cornered, to use the “secret weapon” of a nuke carried by each submarine. Paralleling Vasin’s “integrity vs party line” conflict from Black Sun, Arkhipov must avoid running afoul of the Party, embodied in his rival Captain Savitsky, while shrewdly trying to disobey orders and prevent nuclear war.

“In politics, there are things you do for show and things you do that really matter. The R-12 deployment? That matters.”

Though its deuteragonists never meet, Red Traitor moves back and forth between them to form a plot that is suspenseful and multi-faceted. Compared to Black Sun, which focused on the single location of secret nuclear facility Arzamas-16 to no less excellent effect, Red Traitor incorporates much more of the “historical” in the historical fiction, and the cinematic feel of the scene shifts—each foregrounded by place and date—shows Matthews deftly expanding his narrative style to meet the needs of his subject matter. Drawn from Matthews’s non-fiction work and from accounts of those who lived through the ordeal, the frequent details of KGB and GRU spycraft and the detailed descriptions of life on Soviet diesel submarine B-59 form a consistent setting that conveys one easily into the characters’ experiences. Though the scene-shifting form took a bit of getting used to, it ultimately made the dual-plot work well, especially nearing the book’s climax, and while the climax was not as cathartically hard-hitting as was Black Sun’s (possibly due to Red Traitor’s being more closely based on the history than the former book—and there, thankfully, NOT being a nuclear blast in the Caribbean), the book’s ending prepared the way for the Vasin trilogy’s third installment superbly.

“[An] idealist or a pragmatist, Sasha…What is your diagnosis of yourself, please?”

If Black Sun was a novel about Vasin’s discovery of the immorality of the system in which he is a cog, Red Traitor is a novel about his trying to uphold his own already compromised principles against the guttural, impulsive, self-centered chaos embodied by his boss Orlov—whom he is now fully aware he could become without difficulty. The book has many parallels, both within itself and with its predecessor: just as Vasin has his Orlov, Morozov has his boss Serov (no less unprincipled than Orlov), and Arkhipov’s conflict very much resembles many of the issues experienced by Vasin in Black Sun. All of these serve to reinforce the sense of oppressive, ever-watchful weight inherent in the Soviet system, where every success and favor comes with a hook (a consistent motif through the book).

Paradoxically, the frankness and irony with which Vasin and others admit the faults, if not malignity, of their system yield an air of dark humor to the book, even in its most tense moments. Drawing on his mother’s Russian humor described in Stalin’s Children, Matthews captures and maintains the fact that the Russian people and the Russian Soviet system were not synonymous. Another motif I found similarly endearing was the camaraderie of the sailors, whose easy manner, salutary superstition, and genuine friendship stood in stark contrast against the self-consciously forced comradeship of the book’s other relationships.

Though I have not read many Cold-War-Era spy or submarine novels, Red Traitor was an excellent read. I loved seeing Matthews’s utilizing elements from his non-fiction work for dramatic effect, as well as his expanding his novelistic style. The Author’s Note, wherein Matthews lays out exactly how much of the book is historically based (a vast majority of it is), was particularly useful, and I plan to recommend the book to my history students, as well as to anyone else who asks.

*Disclaimer: I received advance copy of the book from the publisher for review*

Author: dustinllovell

Writing professor, literature and US history tutor, previous ESL instructor, and would-be novelist who enjoys/specializes in Shakespeare, 19th century lit, and philosophy (whether in print or via audiobook). Author of the novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (Wipf and Stock, Resources Imprint). Member of Heterodox Academy. Columnist for The Mallard.

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