JOHN MURRAY, £18.99 Order for £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
To Kill a Tsar, By Andrew Williams
Popular prose for politics
Monday 16 August 2010
Andrew Williams's background is in television journalism and, while making a BBC series on the IRA, he met one of their successful bombers, who had destroyed the centre of Derry.
Williams asked why he had laid waste to his own city, and the cool reply was "because the IRA instructed me to do so". In To Kill a Tsar, Williams has translated this chilling encounter into seething revolutionary Russia, and has suggested telling parallels between the different cultures, despite nearly a century between the Russian terrorists' activities and the IRA's.
The business of compromised characters with difficult moral choices to make in fraught situations clearly fascinates this writer. It was the fulcrum of his Second World War-set debut novel, The Interrogator, which synthesised historical writing with the excitement of the thriller in the manner of Robert Harris's Enigma. Williams has come to grips even more authoritatively with the same notion in To Kill a Tsar.
This is a morality play set in a deftly realised 19th-century St Petersburg; the protagonists are Dr Frederick Hadfield, making money from the privileged Anglo-Russian gentry, and a femme fatale, Anna, who works for pitiless revolutionary groups to overthrow the corrupt elite.
In the summer of 1879, Russia threw up the first significant terrorist cell of the modern era, The People's Will. An energetic war of bombings and assassinations was waged on Alexander II and his government (the parallels here are not just with the IRA but with al-Qa'ida). Williams presents Frederick as off-balance in his professional life and ripe for suborning by Anna, who seduces him into a desperate game in which he becomes the target of both the revolutionaries and the tsar's equally implacable police.
As well as Dostoyevsky's The Devils, there are echoes here of Conrad in the unsparing picture of terrorist cells; but Williams, despite his well-turned prose, is essentially a popular writer, plying these themes in straightforward fashion. The book is none the worse for that, and the bravura of the storytelling registers strongly, even if the moral dilemmas of hero and heroine might have been more thoroughly excavated. Nevertheless, To Kill a Tsar is proof that Williams is the real thing: a writer who can marry popular genres to the sophisticated treatments of political arguments.
A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend
A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Michael Brown shooting: Police shoot and kill second young black man near Ferguson
- 2 James Foley 'beheaded': Isis video shows militant with British accent 'execute US journalist' – and warns Obama of more to come
- 3 Why are UK rail fares so expensive?
- 4 Here’s the damning letter Robin Williams wrote to his Mrs Doubtfire co-star's principal after they expelled her
- 5 Cilla Black defends Cliff Richard: 'I am positive that the allegations are without foundation'
Calvin Harris named highest-paid DJ in the world ahead of David Guetta and Avicii
JK Rowling releases new Harry Potter story on Pottermore: Introducing Celestina Warbuck, the 'Singing Sorceress'
Reading Festival 2014: Tesco branch replaces salad and potatoes for Jagermeister and vodka
Kate Bush: Previously unseen photographs reveal new side to comeback star
The funniest joke at Edinburgh Fringe 2014: Tim Vine wins for second time
Scottish independence: English people overwhelmingly want Scotland to stay in the UK
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Crisis? What crisis? A visiting US doctor gives the NHS a rave review
Russell Brand calls for Israel boycott: Comedian urges big businesses that 'facilitate the oppression of people in Gaza' to pull funding
Ukip MEP calls for reintroduction of death penalty on fiftieth anniversary of last deaths
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head