White Fox by Owen Matthews

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White Fox by Owen Matthews front cover

White Fox is the third novel to feature Russian KGB officer Alexander Vasin, a man much like Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, in that he has had the bad luck to be born with a moral sense and independent streak while serving within a totalitarian regime. The preceding novels, Black Sun and Red Traitor, merged historical fact with fiction to explore real life Cold War events from a plausible Russian perspective, covering the development of Russian nuclear capability and the Cuban Missile Crisis. White Fox differs slightly – although its starting point is the Kennedy assassination, the resultant story is pure speculation in the sense that KGB involvement in the assassination is considered very unlikely.

The novel takes place following that fateful event in November 1963. As punishment for his actions in Red Traitor, Vasin has been demoted to lieutenant colonel and sent to Siberia as director of a Gulag camp, with the expectation that his posting will most likely be a literal dead end. And it nearly proves so when a prisoner revolt forces Vasin and several officers to abandon the gulag and flee for their lives into the Siberian winter.

With them is Berezovsky, a mysterious prisoner who arrived just the day before the rebellion, escorted by two guards. One of the guards carried a cryptic note from Vasin’s old boss and mentor, now probable enemy, Colonel Orlov. The orders were to keep the prisoner alive at all costs and in absolute secrecy. Vasin strongly suspects Berezovsky of being kontora, KGB slang for itself, and the man admits as much.

Berezovsky has sensitive information about Kennedy’s assassination and the KGB’s involvement in it. Realising this made him a target for those who ordered the assassination, he went to Orlov for help. Orlov set up a scheme to hide Berezovsky then make out the man had been killed. With a change of name, Berezovsky was then sent to Vasin’s camp.

However, the subterfuge was unsuccessful and a KGB faction is on Berezovsky’s tail. Major Vladimir Koslov and his brutish assistant, known only as The Macedonian, are on their way. Knowing only too well Orlov’s machinations, Vasin realises to his dismay that his own survival is now linked to that of Berezovsky’s. Should he manage to keep Berezovsky alive long enough to reach Orlov, the colonel is likely to repay his diligence with a bullet anyway. Orlov’s ruthless streak is a mile wild – no one rises that high in the KGB without an understanding of how the game is played.

So the hunt is on, first through the deadly frozen landscape of Siberia, then in the town of Vorkuta, and finally to Leningrad.

White Fox is an effective action thriller, enlivened by a convincing depiction of the internecine forces at work in the Soviet security apparatus. Betrayal is everywhere and seems to be the standard modus operandi of the KGB, and the novel is an emphatic portrait of a system collapsing in on itself.

The desperate escape of Vasin and Berezovsky brings to mind The 39 Steps. The conflict between the two men, who can’t trust each another but must rely on one another to survive, is a great strength of White Fox at first, however it becomes repetitive. The lack of involvement of agents of any other nations makes White Fox feels like an espionage novel that is missing something. Vasin himself is a little anaemic, certainly when compared to as complex and compromised a character as Bernie Gunther. The novel’s impressive plotting and historical detail do serve to raise it above similar thrillers, though.

Also see our review of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44, which is set under similar circumstances.


CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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