A Dazzling Debut Spy Thriller Carved in Poison

Sergei Lebedev’s 'Untraceable' explores evil through the minds of both the hunter and the hunted


In Smiley’s People, the KGB assassinates a former Soviet general who spied for the British and is retired in London. John le Carré’s legendary spymaster George Smiley is brought back from retirement to assess the damage and sweep the mess under the proverbial carpet. But instead of a coverup, Smiley launches an operation that bags an enormous prize for British intelligence.

Sergei Lebedev’s Untraceable also begins with a Russian state-sponsored assassination. But instead of England, the act occurs in an unnamed European country we’ll only learn later. (Lebedev can be overly coy with such details.) But the weapon is of a contemporary sort: Instead of being shot on Hampstead Heath in the dead of night, the victim, a Russian émigré, is horribly dispatched in broad daylight by a chemical weapon before dozens in a crowded café. The scene is many times more explicit and awful than in most serious novels of espionage. It is also preceded by escalating tension and literary clues that leave the reader with little doubt of the émigré’s inevitable fate—but compels one ever forward.

For most readers, the real-life nerve-agent poisoning of Russian defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England, in 2018 will quickly come to mind. British authorities blamed the attack on two Russian GRU agents. They are Lebedev’s villains, too.

Sergei Lebedev, born in Moscow in 1981, is a poet, essayist, and journalist who worked in northern Russia on geological expeditions before moving to Berlin and gaining near instant acclaim with his work, all set in Russia but Untraceble being his first, dazzling entry in the spy genre. In a January interview with the New York Times, he revealed that he was raised on the novels of the late David Cornwall (Le Carré), which were part of his English-speaking parents’ library of detective fiction, and that he sent an English translation of Untraceable to his literary hero (alas, too late for the late author to read it). The master’s influence is evident, but his student may have begun to exceed him. The social issues, history, and intense character development he expertly mines are reminiscent of classic, complex Russian literature, while remaining accessible to the contemporary reader.

The omniscient narrator in Untraceable is more than an observant and thoughtful soul. He takes us on a journey deep into the world view of both predators and victims, showing their fears and aspirations while providing a window into how evil deeds are conceived, carried out, and justified. One main character is the tough but troubled Shershnev, a GRU colonel whose given name we never learn. As he prepares to employ a chemical weapon to assassinate a defector hiding under cover in the Czech Republic, we journey deep into his rationales and self-loathing.

The novel (beautifully translated by Antonina W. Bouis) is clearly set in the age of Putin. Russia’s leader remains unnamed throughout, but the deadly mission that propels the story forward could come straight from recent headlines. The narrative often harkens back to the reigns of Stalin, Khrushchev, and their Soviet successors, demonstrating that Lebedev, and perhaps many of his fellow countrymen, cannot shake the hold of the Soviet past.

The café assassination in the first chapter sets the scene for a new pair of GRU officers, led by the GRU’s Colonel Shershnev, to pursue the next enemy of the state’s list. Their target is one Kalitin, who Lebedev had first introduced previously only as “the boy,” an unnamed child science prodigy discovered by his Uncle Igor, a top chemical weapons researcher.

Kalitin follows in Uncle Igor’s footsteps to become a member of the Soviet scientific elite, and creates the difficult-to-detect toxin that gives the novel its name. Now his purchase in the system is assured: He can wholly devote himself to his beloved, deadly, and odious research in a place kept so secret that it was only a blank spot on the map. But with the end of the USSR, his life and work would change forever:

They delivered everything to him, extracting it from the bowels of the earth, gathering it at factories, if necessary buying it for hard currency abroad; if they couldn’t buy it, they stole it, copied it, or manufactured a single device at an experimental factory at unbelievable cost…

Suddenly, this horn of plenty that covered every possible register and classification from bolts and wires to rare isotopes stopped working. Dried up.

With the fall of the USSR, Kalitin defects abroad, but we learn where he has been given refuge, the Czech Republic, only in the last chapters. We are again starved of details, never learning the quid pro quo Kalitin provided in exchange for shelter from the Russians. But we do learn that he kept his ace in the hole secret from his saviors: a sample of his untraceable toxin to use if the need arises.

Though sometimes lacking in details about the external world, Lebedev’s indelible triumph richly describes the inner thoughts of its characters, yet still includes the action sequences attractive to fans of the espionage novel. This makes Untraceable one of the most compelling novels on the market today.

Untraceable. New Vessel Press, New York, NY 242 pp.

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