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Killing Stalin

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Smaller Sky, Woodstock, 2002
price: 6.99; 160 pages

dedication: For Grace, Toby, Jessie, Edward, Mary and Andrew

The blurb on the back:

A translator in the American embassy in Moscow, idly pursuing an affair with a Russian 'swallow' (a woman seeking to recruit Westerners for the KGB), begins receiving disturbing rumours from a source whose accuracy is beyond question. The Kremlin's darkest secret is about to be revealed, sparking a race against time to remove Stalin for the sake of the safety of the world.

opening lines:
History is undecided how Joseph Stalin died. My little story provides the most likely answer. An immodest claim, perhaps. But I happened to be there.

One of the great joys of the pastiche Sherlock Holmes books is their cheerful inclusion of real historical figures in the midst of preposterous fiction. Killing Stalin shares the same sense of fun, with Stalin and Beria sharing the stage with Allen Dulles, head of the CIA, and with a fantastic cameo by the double-act of Churchill and Eden. Winston, long past his peak, is a rambling, shambling figure but still capable of flashes of insight and rhetoric, whilst Eden is visibly fading into impotent frustration, kept alive only by the slender hope that he might yet inherit the Premiership from his superannuated superior.

These great men, however, are essentially peripheral figures. Our real heroes are a brace of translators, one occupying a lowly position at America's Moscow embassy, the other working personally for Stalin himself. Because this is principally a historical fantasy about small people getting mixed up in events of huge global significance, and it makes for a very good, very funny romp. But, as with any great farce, there's serious stuff going on behind the jokes. In particular, given that I read it during the Bush-Blair war against Iraq, there's the question of how America feels it ought to respond to the existence of a hostile madman in control of weapons of mass destruction. And, again of continuing resonance, there's the psychology of loyalty to a tyrannical father-figure: the shadow of the 1930s Show Trials hangs ominously over the depiction of 1950s Moscow. Because ultimately history is the key theme, and underlying the light tone, there's cautionary tale in here of the expendable nature of individuals when the interpretation of history is at stake.

It is, in short, a near-flawless novel, successful at every level it attempts. And, personally, I shall cherish for a long time the image of Stalin as a paranoid, friendless domestic despot, resembling nothing so much as Elvis in his last years.

Highly recommended to each and every one of you.

available from Smaller Sky website
from the maker of...

Goebbels and Gladys