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

Munich

The Revolution of Marina M.

Day 80: Code to Zero

Cover for Code to ZeroI usually enjoy a good Ken Follett thriller, but I have to say that in Code to Zero, I felt like Follett was phoning it in. The novel is set in the depths of the Cold War, January 1958. Claude “Luke” Lucas awakens on the floor of the men’s restroom in Union Station, D.C., with no memory. He is dressed like a bum and another bum tells him how much he drank the night before.

But Luke doesn’t believe he is a bum. When the other man offers to take him on a bender, he realizes he has no desire for alcohol and concludes he must not be an alcoholic. He also quickly discovers he has other talents, like the ability to lose a shadow.

We are soon lead to conclude that Luke’s search for his identity has something to do with the launch of the Explorer I rocket, America’s last hope for competing with the Russians in the space program. We almost immediately learn (although Luke does not know) that his activities are being monitored by Anthony Carroll, a CIA operative, whose agent was the “bum” who tried to get Luke drunk. After Luke shakes off his minder, Carroll feverishly tries to locate him.

These shades of The Bourne Identity are interleaved with flashbacks to the early 40’s, when Luke is a physics student at Harvard who wants a career in rocket science. He and his friends Anthony and Bern, his girlfriend Elspeth, and Anthony’s girlfriend Billie will later be entangled in the plot.

Luke’s search for his identity and the danger he is unknowingly courting are at first compelling. The flashbacks are much less successful, because Follett doesn’t seem very interested in establishing his characters’ personalities and getting us interested in them. The latter parts of the book dealing with Luke’s unconvincingly rapid success at discovering his identity and what follows after suffer from the same problems.