The Partisan by Patrick Worrall. After attaining their independence at the end of the First World War, the Baltic countries suffered the misfortune of being invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939 and then by Nazi Germany in 1941 and again by the Soviet Union in 1944. This has provided a tragic history of intrigue, murder, revenge and ultimately hope for novelists to draw upon, and certainly one I knew little about. My interest in the Baltic was recently piqued after reading an advanced readers copy of the Cold War thriller Baltic Shadow by Matejs Kalns.
Patrick Worrall has embraced Lithuania’s recent history, forging it into an absorbing multi-stranded thriller. Its intersecting story lines are told in flashbacks that span across revolutionary Russia, the Spanish Civil War, the swinging 60s and present day and war time Lithuania, from the perspective of four central characters.
Greta, the Partisan of the title, is a merciless killer who learnt her trade in the forests of Lithuania during the Second World War. She is on a mission to avenge the atrocities carried out during and after the war, hunting down Nazi and Soviet war criminals, and a British traitor. Her search is deeply personal in nature and it is her need for revenge that is at the heart of the narrative.
It brings her into contact with Michael Fitzgerald, a student and chess champion, who is the son of the Head of Naval Intelligence. Michael meets Yulia Foorsheva, the daughter of a member of the Politburo, at a chess tournament in London. They embark on a wild love affair and soon become caught up in Greta’s quest for vengeance and the scheming of the British and Soviet Intelligence services.
When Yulia’s father disappears he is suspected of defecting and her mother, a member of the Politburo, comes under suspicion and loses her power. This is orchestrated by Maxim Karpov, a depraved Chekist in the MGB. Karpov wields tremendous power behind the scenes and even the Soviet Leader treads carefully in his dealings with him. Karpov is a character that really jumps off the page, especially when his backstory is told in a shocking flashback that leaves the reader both sickened by and somehow sympathetic to him.
Placed under threat by Karpov, Yulia has to rely on her former body guard ‘Vassily’ a fixer and an agent in the GRU, Soviet army intelligence, and a rival of Karpov’s.
These characters work with and against each other as they battle to survive in a clandestine war of wits, that plays out against the backdrop of impending nuclear destruction. The flashbacks can sometimes slow down the narrative, but Worrell has created a tangled web that expertly brings these various storylines together in an enjoyable and intricate cold war thriller.