Review 1769: The Man from St. Petersburg

Back in the days when Ken Follett and John Le Carré were the major names in the espionage genre, I used to read both and sometimes confuse them. However, at some point I realized that, of the two, Le Carré is really the master of the genre and the better writer, so I stopped reading Follett. When Pillars of the Earth came out, I read that and decided that historical fiction was not Follett’s genre (I know many would disagree), so I stopped reading him altogether. This is a long way of staying that I picked up The Man from St. Petersburg by mistake.

The premise is intriguing. It’s 1909, and Winston Churchill wants to avoid a war with Germany by making a pact with Russia. The czar wants Prince Aleksey Andreyevich Orlov to handle the negotiations, so Churchill wants Lord Walden, whose wife Lydia is Orlov’s aunt, to handle the British side. Back in Russia, the anarchists want a revolution, which they believe would be kicked off by a war, so they want the negotiations stopped. One of the anarchists, Feliks, must kill Orlov, and he goes to England to do so.

I thought that sounded interesting, but not too far in I felt like Follett was just putting his characters through their paces, making them do what he needed them to do. The diplomatic conversations lacked the subtlety they actually would have had. They just seemed crude and too direct. Finally, a major plot point that was supposed to be a surprise on about page 80 was too loudly telegraphed on page 10. I stopped reading about one third of the way into the book.

Code to Zero


The Revolution of Marina M.

5 thoughts on “Review 1769: The Man from St. Petersburg

  1. IronMike December 14, 2021 / 7:01 pm

    Thanks for this review. I’m a HUGE Le Carre fan, and am just about done with all his works. Looking for someone else. Martin Cruz Smith, while not espionage/spy, is a close second, I really would like another author who knows the spy game.

    I read The Charm School some years ago and must admit that it sucked. I know so many who loved it, but I’m unique in that I’ve served as a diplomat overseas (Moscow, even). The actions of the diplomats in The Charm School were simply ignorant, and would never happen.

    So I’m stuck. Who to read after I’m done with Le Carre? I know now not to put Follett on my list, and for that I thank you. (FWIW, reviews like this where the reviewer doesn’t actually finish the book are just as valuable as those where s/he reads the entire book.)

    • whatmeread December 14, 2021 / 7:15 pm

      I really liked Gorky Park, but I can’t say I thought that much of one other of Smith’s that I tried. However, that was years ago, and my priorities have changed. I don’t know that he’s written anything based in Russia, but you might try Robert Harris. His two more recent books aren’t as good, but try An Officer and a Spy, about the Dreyfus affair. Also, with your background, you should love Snowdrops by A. D. Miller, if you haven’t already read it.

      • IronMike December 15, 2021 / 7:15 pm

        Thanks! I will try those. I think I’ve read Harris, if he’s the one who wrote Fatherland. As for Martin Cruz Smith, his Polar Star and Havana Bay were great. I’ve read 5 of the Arkady Renko books. No Smiley, but still good.

  2. thecontentreader December 17, 2021 / 6:14 am

    I listened (yes, listened, not my favourite way of reading) to this book while travelling in the Caribbean in December 2019. I have not read a Follett book in years, and realised, after reading this, that I have to got back to his book. I really loved it. I found it very exciting as the story developed. Maybe you stopped reading too early?

    • whatmeread December 17, 2021 / 11:48 am

      That’s always the question.

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