A Traitor’s Heart With A Mind To Kill
Ben Creed Anthony Horowitz
(Welbeck) (Jonathan Cape)
Both the novels reviewed here look back to the Cold War, an era that until recently seemed like ancient history. Recent events in Ukraine have been a reminder that history has a bad habit of repeating itself.
In A Traitor’s Heart (Welbeck), by Ben Creed, a serial killer haunts the streets of fifties Leningrad. The victims are all veterans of the ‘Great Patriotic War’, each one left with a piece of paper with a cryptic note written on it stuffed into their mouth. With A Mind To Kill (Jonathan Cape) is the fourth and last James Bond novel written by Anthony Horowitz and sees the suave spy questioning his purpose as he goes undercover in East Germany.
Both books recreate specific historical moments with meticulous accuracy. Creed gives us a Soviet Union that has emerged from the war as a global superpower led by an ageing tyrant beset with paranoia. Horowitz writes about a Bond living in the early sixties where the social certainties that underpinned his view of the world are starting to crumble.
Revol Rossel, the disgraced ex-militia detective central character in A Traitor’s Heart,is exhumed from the living death of incarceration GULAG to investigate the murders by Major Nikitin, the man responsible for his brutal interrogation at the hands of the NKVD. Both men are living ghosts haunting a looking-glass world where the truth is something decided on behind closed doors. Life and death, decided by the whims of faceless officials.
The Bond of With A Mind to Kill is a less romanticized and more appealing figure than the martini sipping dispenser of one-liners familiar to those of us who grew up watching Roger Moore and his infamous acting eyebrows. An almost successful attempt to brainwash him into killing M left Bond questioning his grip on reality as, for the first time in his life, his previously iron-clad self confidence is as shaken and stirred as his cocktail of choice.
Out of the two A Traitor’s Heart is, by a very small margin, the better book, if only because it deals with an emotional palette where the colours are richer. Horowitz, by contrast, is limited by having to work within the clearly defined confines of a well-established franchise. In Rossel, Ben Creed has created a central character with, as the title suggests the heart of a traitor, in the sense of having been a less than convinced believer in Comrade Stalin and someone who has survived the horrors of the camps by adopting the morals of criminals he once hunted. Teamed with the soul of an artist, he retains enough sensitivity to be troubled by the compromises required from survival, both political and personal. A not unfamiliar conflict in the genre, but one that is handled here with admirable skill.
Taking on one of the most familiar characters in the thriller genre requires considerable literary chops. Anthony Horowitz certainly rises to the challenge, walking the tightrope between expectations of long-time fans and doing something original with familiar characters and scenarios. It is no small achievement that he delivered on both counts.
The action is intense, as one might expect, moving from London to the GDR and then Moscow. All settings are depicted with meticulous period detail, with the best depiction being Horowitz catching the tone of Fleming’s original novels without the snobbery. It helps that in Colonel Boris, he has created an adversary for Bond worthy of a place in the pantheon alongside Goldfinger.
This will delight all fans. What will please the rest of us just as much is what he does with Bond. It takes no small amount of talent to make an icon into a character who might display weaknesses which make him human enough to be relatable. Even more so, to have this new perspective survive the knowledge that the franchise will trundle on regardless.