The Translator by Harriet Crawley

3 Mins read
The Translator by Harriet Crawley US front cover

If you’re a US fan of espionage thrillers you’ll be excited that Harriet Crawley’s The Translator – lauded by UK media as one of the best thrillers of 2023 – is finally available in the United States. If you’re a UK follower of this site and somehow missed wonderful book, now’s your chance.

A British translator – he insists on the term, as opposed to ‘interpreter’ – is called away from his vacation in the Scottish Highlands to accompany the prime minister on a lightning trip to Moscow. Clive Franklin is one of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s best Russian-English-Russian translators, but a vacation is a vacation. Not in this case. Before he can say Kinlochleven, he’s snatched out of the place and loaded onto a helicopter. The prime minister’s staff have taken care of the documents, clothing, new business cards and medications he’ll need.

While it seems they have fully prepared for any contingency, they haven’t expected that his opposite number in Moscow, Marina Volina, an equally expert translator for Russian president Nikolai Serov, is someone Clive fell in love with when they both worked at the United Nations. Marina broke it off, married, became a widow, and is now one of Serov’s most trusted aides. When Clive sees her again, he’s smitten anew, and Crawley convincingly portrays the emotion they feel for each other and how hard they must work to hide it.

If Marina looks older and worn out, it is in part due to grief. One of the two young men she considers her sons, Pasha, died recently, reportedly of a drug overdose. She hadn’t heard from his brother until the morning of the UK-Russia meeting, when she received a note from him that read ‘Pasha was murdered. By your lot.’ That is, the FSB. Marina is convinced that the unthinkable is true.

The UK-Russian discussions do not go well. Yet, underneath all the diplomatic blustering, the Russians are evidently up to something. In her grief and anger, Marina determines to find out what it is, tell Clive, and somehow get herself and Vanya out of the country.

Her chief antagonist is Pasha’s former boss, General Varlamov, deputy director of the FSB, who believes himself in line to take the top position. Protecting Russia’s secrets and punishing those that violate them would be the crowning achievement that might assure his advancement. His spies, hidden cameras and microphones are everywhere. Resentful of Marina’s close relationship with Serov, Varlamov keeps her under an especially watchful eye.

At their first Moscow diplomatic meeting together, small talk reveals that both Marina and Clive are marathon runners. Training for the forthcoming Moscow marathon is one way Marina keeps her wits about her. Serov encourages Clive to enter also, thinking he’ll get a photograph of the Englishman on his knees – some symbolic victory, there. At first Clive demurs, as he hasn’t planned to stay in Moscow for long, but it turns out that practice runs are an ideal way for him and Marina to exchange information, as their minders can’t keep up. Hoping he’ll get some information from her, the embassy asks him to stay. Clive and Marina must carve a path through a cast of interesting and believable characters – spies, diplomats, apparatchiks and brave anti-regime protestors, friends and enemies alike.

You get a strong sense, throughout, of the oppressive atmosphere of being constantly watched, every conversation listened to. Marina is playing a dangerous chess game, calculating every move based not only on what she hopes to accomplish, but how it will appear to the FSB. She and Clive can meet in secret in the countryside, but even there they can do so only at night, away from her dacha, while making it appear occupied, because a car parked out front contains an observer.

This novel contains several ticking clocks that raise the tension to keep-you-up-reading levels. There’s whatever the Russians are planning, the timeline of which is bit obscure because Serov is dithering. The British know something is up, but not whether they can deploy countermeasures in time. There’s the marathon, which is on a certain date. There are Varlamov’s suspicions and diligent efforts to find a weak point in Marina’s subterfuges that will prove she’s the traitor he believes she is. And, possibly lastly, there are the cleverly planned and innocent-seeming pieces Marina puts in place to secure her and Vanya’s escape, as well as ensure the safety of those who helped her. Crawley’s expert plotting brings all these streams together in an entirely satisfying way.

I love a good spy story, and this one is terrific!

You might also like Moscow X by David McCloskey or Tom Bradby’s Yesterday’s Spy.

Bitter Lemon Press

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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