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.