Books: Rounding up the usual suspects

The Cold War's aftermath still breeds political thrillers - but Peter Whittaker prefers the sour taste of Vichy; The Fortune Teller by Donald James Century, pounds 10, 424pp; Stealing Thunder by Peter Millar Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99, 308pp; Remembrance Day by Henry Porter Orion, pounds 12.99, 373ppRed Gold by Alan Furst HarperCollins, pounds 16.99, 258pp
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DONALD JAMES wrote prolifically, under a variety of pseudonyms, before making a breakthrough with Monstrum: a tale of serial killing and social disintegration set in post-millennial Moscow. His sequel, The Fortune Teller, again features his less-than-astute detective Constantin Vadim, who conducts his inquiries in a vodka-induced haze and broods darkly on the soul of Mother Russia.

It is 2017, centenary of the Revolution, and Vadim is home in the Arctic port of Murmansk, a lawless place in which Sin City, an outcast community perched on the frozen waters of Lake Polkava, is the epicentre of corruption. When Constantin's wife Natalya, a doctor, fails to return from an emergency call, he frantically contemplates an accident or even a lover. However, when it emerges that Joan Fowler, a US consular official, disappeared on the same night and grisly clues begin appearing, it becomes clear he is dealing with abduction and possible murder.

Vadim's idiosyncratic investigative technique - involving copious alcohol and a Sin City fortune teller - is put on a less chaotic footing when he is paired with a female FBI agent. Together they discover that Natalya and Joan have been involved in spiriting children out of Kola, the horrific juvenile penal colony, and smuggling them to the West. But did the women's activities lead to their abduction? And how do the ever-present Russian Mafia fit into the picture?

The book has a broken-backed structure, in which the mystery of the disappearance is solved mid-novel. This is not necessarily a weakness, as it allows the plot to modulate into a darker tale involving rigged elections, fascism and child slavery. Densely-plotted, with a satisfying cinnamon-vodka kick, The Fortune Teller is an engaging speculation on a Russia that is teetering on the brink of catastrophe.

The journalist Peter Millar's debut Stealing Thunder spins a wonderful web of what-ifs around the story of Klaus Fuchs, the atomic physicist who gave the secrets of the Manhattan Project to the Soviet Union. Miller confidently weaves parallel narratives, cutting between Los Alamos, New Mexico in 1945, as the scientists develop the ultimate weapon, and a contemporary story involving Eamon Burke, a hard-bitten journalist. Burke is pursuing a tip-off that, as the Berlin Wall crumbled, Fuchs had been murdered to prevent him revealing a secret that challenged all the certainties of the postwar world.

This is a cracking novel that rattles the action along from London to Moscow and Berlin to Reykjavik. In a superbly intricate plot which involves - apart from the obligatory sex and intrigue - Stasi secret files, mysterious maps and a missing bomber, Millar never sacrifices intelligence for pace. He manages to combine a plausible conspiracy theory with a sympathetic portrait of the anguished personality of Klaus Fuchs. It's a resounding success and - as the full story emerges - a refutation of the theory that history is written by the winners.

It often seems as if modern thriller-writing consists of a throng of journalists striving for freedom via bestseller lists and Hollywood contracts. Vanity Fair's Henry Porter joins the scrum with Remembrance Day, a modish, technology-packed drama. The book's opening grabs your attention: Constantine Lindow, Irish, brilliant scientist, all-round good guy, is waiting for his brother outside a Tube station when a huge bomb destroys a bus, killing several people.

Arrested as the closest Irishman, Lindow has to prove his innocence. He follows a labyrinthine trail that involves the IRA, renegade British soldiers, a hide-out in the Maine woods and bombs triggered by mobile phones.

This is - despite its cybercrime trappings - an old-fashioned tale of derring-do, rather like an updated Hitchcock script. I enjoyed the very plausible in-fighting and paranoia among the MI5 apparatchiks but flat characters, undigested research and a plodding style make Remembrance Day a worthy rather than a triumphant debut.

Alan Furst's atmospheric espionage thrillers, set in Europe before and during the Second World War, have been compared to Graham Greene. In Red Gold, we are once again in Vichy France, in the company of Jean Casson, cultured film producer and the reluctant protagonist of Furst's previous novel, The World at Night.

At the end of that book Casson had - just - escaped from the Gestapo and fled to England. Now, in autumn 1941, he is back in Occupied Paris, under an assumed identity, his privileged lifestyle a fading memory as he lives from hand to mouth on the margins of a defeated and traumatised city.

Casson has not really changed his view that "the world will just have to muddle through without my help". But events sweep him along and he is soon engaged as an emissary between officers loyal to de Gaulle and the Communist resistance. In Casson's twilight world, sabotage and gun- running are low-key and, most of the time, he has only the haziest idea of what is happening.

Furst's elegant prose conveys the feeling of ordinary people living inside cataclysmic events and explores the meaning of patriotism, idealism and commitment without ever lapsing into moralising. His books do not so much begin and end as take up and leave off, as we are afforded glimpses into lives as fragmentary and fates as arbitrary as our own. In Furst's world, there is much heroism but no heroes, and it pays to keep in mind Trotsky's dictum that "you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you."

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