A Red Hot Cold War Thriller
‘The Scarlet Papers,’ is an old-school triumph for author Matthew Richardson
I confess to being a nut for spy novels— real ones, not “thrillers” stuffed with shootouts. (There is little gunplay in real-life espionage operations, except special ops—but that’s playing in a different ballpark.) I gobble them like some chocoholic in Willy Wonka’s factory. But I find too many of today’s offerings to be bland confections. Too many Hersheys, too few Godivas.
I am a traditionalist of the genre, preferring books with Cold War backdrops. There was much chatter that the old-school style of spy fiction—and spying itself—withered with the fall of the Berlin Wall and died with John le Carré, but that was overstated. Sure, there’s greater reliance on technology and the targets have changed. But the rise of Vladimir Putin—himself a former KGB officer—has breathed some new life into the genre.
It’s good to have a great bad guy again, in the literary sense. We now have authors like Mick Herron (whose Slough House series is an absolute delight), Charles Cumming, Alan Furst, Joseph Kanon, David Ignatius. Still, I have missed the Soviet goons in ill-fitting suits, the arrogant double agents, the tenacious mole hunters, the brush passes, the dead drops, the treffs.
One practice that continues is that when many of today’s espionage novels are published, reviewers seem all too eager to knight the author with breathless hyperbole as “the next le Carré.”
But sometimes that sobriquet is actually deserved. With The Scarlet Papers, Matthew Richardson has penned a rich classic that is so brilliantly rooted in the Cold War mode that you would think it was written in invisible ink on a one-time cipher pad.