Review: The Distinguished Assassin – Nick Taussig

UnknownThe Distinguished Assassin is a novel about an unlikely assassin during one of the most-terrible periods in Russian history.

Behold the glorious blurb, comrade:

1952. Free at last from a labour camp in Kolyma, the heart of Gulag hell, war hero and former professor Aleksei Klebnikov hopes to rejoin his family and recover some semblance of the life he once had. However he is crushed to discover that his beautiful wife Natasha has betrayed him with his old enemy Vladimir Primakov, the MVD agent who imprisoned him.

Embittered by the system that has destroyed his life, Aleksei accepts a mission from the notorious thief-in-law Ivan Ivanovich: to assassinate six leading Communists. All of them are evil men, responsible for untold misery, and Aleksei sees this as his opportunity to take revenge upon the Communist state.

But with just one man left to kill, Aleksei is unexpectedly reunited with his wife and daughter and hopes to put his demons to rest, repent for the past and return to family life. But the life of an assassin is not one that can be easily cast aside. All is not quite what it seems, and as Aleksei battles his conscience and the dark memories of his crimes, he realises that his greatest enemy has yet to be unveiled…

This novel ain’t subtle. It’s a sledgehammer of a book which bludgeons its embattled protagonist, and the reader, again and again. Aleksei, the assassin of the title, stumbles from one abasement to another: the killing of his parents, the apparent betrayal of his beloved wife, his incarceration in the remote gulag of Kolyma, and his brief and unhappy career as a reluctant angel of vengeance.

The motley collection of state operatives, criminals and nomenklatura who populate The Distinguished Assassin are about as corrupt and brutal a bunch as you are ever likely to meet. Taussig pokes beneath the grimy undershirts of the Russian experiment, in the aftermath of Stalin’s demise when his lieutenants scrabbled for control, to discover the disease mutating beneath its sallow skin. It’s a seriously grim book.

But it’s a big, emotional novel in the Russian style – not for nothing did the author gain a Master’s in Russian Literature. The Distinguished Assassin is written in prose that’s sometimes muscular and terse, and other times florid and elaborate. In these days of dry and ironic thrills, which tiptoe tastefully through history, Taussig does something very brave: he tells his tale with an impassioned, barely-contained fury. He slaps on the emotion good and thick, cranks up the Russian melodrama – it’s a righteous and unashamedly theatrical novel.

Aleksei’s journey takes him thousands of miles across the USSR, and if his odyssey from respected academic intellectual to expert killer is sometimes a little difficult to swallow, there’s no denying the author’s commitment and knowledge of his subject. Aleksei finds treachery everywhere, in the iron fist of the inhuman state apparatus, to the thieves-in-law, the shadowy criminal hierarchy who pulled strings behind-the-curtains.  Clues in the text remind us that today’s Russia still struggles mightily with its communist legacy.

The Distinguished Assassin may not be to everybody’s taste – as a crime novel, Stalin’s Russia is a precinct well-trodden by Tom Rob Smith, Sam Eastland and William Ryan, for example – but it’s violent and intoxicating and unexpectedly full of heart, and it smacks you in the face like a cold blast of Siberian air.

Thanks to Dissident for supplying a copy for review.

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