Review: RED TRAITOR, by Owen Matthews, published by Bantam.

Just recently your reviewer has enjoyed a vast range of different books to read and comment on. The delightful editors of Shots are keeping me busy, thank goodness, because all too often the books sent to me by enthusiastic publicists tend to have got me confused with writers of bodice-rippers and historical romance, rather than distinctly more violent and bloody stories. 

Ah well, they say variety is the spice of life. I’m not sure they’re right, however.

This is the first book I have read by Owen Matthews. Matthews is a Russian expert, the blurb tells me. He wrote Stalin’s Children and An Impeccable Spy before turning his hand (very successfully) to a thriller, Black Sun. Oh, and he was a war correspondent, too, covering Bosnia, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Chechnya and other places no one sensible would really want to visit. 

In short, he’s a successful writer. 

This book is, I am assuming, a follow-on from Black Sun. It is written with a taut style that really suits the subject matter, rather like an early Frederick Forsythe – I imagine that is in large part due to his training as a war reporter. It has an impact – get to the facts, explain the facts and background, but also show people’s feelings. The main thing here is, Matthews has a truly compelling, gripping narrative. He has plotted this exceptionally well, and he has a master storyteller’s skill for putting the reader right in the thick of the action. 

Which is no easy task with this book.

It is based on the early 1960s, and the battle between Krushchev and Kennedy over the appearance of Soviet missiles on Cuba, aimed at the heart of the USA. There is a brilliant summary of the situation in an author’s note at the end of the book, which I would heartily recommend to anyone who is interested in the period and the causes of what very nearly caused the Third World War and the obliteration of much of the planet.

However, the action in Matthews’ latest book is not set in Cuba. Mostly it is in Moscow, and the hunt for a spy, and then on board a flotilla of Soviet submarines which had been sent to Cuba to break the blockade imposed by the US fleets. All of which could sound a little far-fetched, until you read the author’s note and realise that none of this was invention. Captain First Class Vasily Arkhipov was a real commander, who did command a flotilla sent to Cuba, and on board each of the four submarines there was a secret weapon, something so deadly that if it had been used, we would have been thrown into a world war which would have caused massive destruction. 

It begins with Arkhipov having a nightmare, a recurring one, in which he was on board the K19 nuclear submarine. He often had this nightmare, because on 4th of July, 1961, he was on board the ship when the cooling systems in the nuclear reactor failed. The sailors operated the safety control rods, but even with them removed, the reactor’s temperature continued to climb because of the residual heat. At the rate it was going, it must melt through the hull.

This is the start point of the book because Arkhipov is a crucial element in this factual story. He was involved in a submarine disaster, which saw many of his sailors terribly burned and injured trying to rescue the ship from disaster, and he formed his own opinions about nuclear war and the risks involved. He had seen what could happen, and was determined to prevent any such repeat. 

But meanwhile Sasha Vasin is working for his boss Orlov in the KGB, and has been ordered to find a spy. He is good at finding spies, and has already discovered one – although his conscience pricks him at the memory. Perhaps he is not cut out to be a spy-catcher. His wife certainly thinks so. Learning of his position in the KGB, she has become mute in his presence. She ignores him, refuses to let him into her bed, and he must doss down on the sitting room’s sofa. His success at work makes him a eunuch at home. 

But not he has been pointed towards a spy who must be working with the Americans. A man who is leaking secrets. Vasin thinks he might have a means to capture him, and sets a team to watch the man: Colonel Oleg Morozov.

From these two apparently unconnected stories Matthews has created a superb thriller. It’s a real cold-war tale, much in the vein of a Tom Clancy, but with a degree of detail and conviction that grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. And it is this that demonstrates Matthews’ skill as a researcher and novelist, because he has gathered together all the elements of the submarine flotilla, the spying of Oleg Penkovsky, and the “hot-headed” and irrational captain Valentin Savitsky, the loose cannon that could have set off a hot war, and bound them all together in this gripping, fabulous, spell-binding story.

Is this highly recommended? You bet.

Am I off now to get a copy of Black Sun? You bet.

If you like your thrillers realistic, accurate and impossible to put down, buy a copy today. You won’t regret it.

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