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By John Helmer, Moscow

If you are just back from the beach with your sachel of books dog-eared, riddled with beach sand, even read to the finish, you may have missed the latest in this year’s crop of thrillers with Russians for villains. Mark Mills’s House of the Hanged was released in July. The Independent newspaper of London, owned since March by ex-KGB man Alexander Lebedev, claims this is the author’s “best work in an already accomplished career.”

A few weeks earlier, Chris Morgan Jones’s Agent of Deceit had a paid-up state-owned Russian oligarch in the seat of villainy, with the fear of Imperial Russia Revived the touchstone of a plot that tied British journalists, London due diligence investigators, and MI6 on the same side (Good).

There has to be something, je ne sais quoi…. pretentious about Mark Mills spelling death and life in this novel with capitals D and L. But there’s no doubt that in the London book market right now, your works are going to fly off the shelf if you make sure the Russians are spelled Bad.

In this case, it’s pure coincidence that the plot has been set where one of the most powerful Russian oligarchs of all takes his rest these days – at a hotel owned, according to French transaction and Luxembourg registration papers, by his wife, Elena Timchenko.

The Hotel Club de Cavaliere, which is open to the public at Le Lavandou, is real. In the Mills fiction, the action takes place on a 15-kilometre strip of French coastline between Le Lavandou, Le Rayol, and Cavalaire-sur-Mer – between Toulon to the west, Frejus to the east. Mills sets his tale of the bad Russians coming from Moscow to murder the hero in July of 1935.

The Club de Cavaliere of July 2011 is in Tuscan style, and according to the history of the hotel now occupying it, it dates from the 1950s when a lawyer built the structure to accommodate his friends. Now a hotel which opens its doors to the public for part of every year, it is owned by Sogeco, whose ownership is divided between Gennady Timchenko and his wife. The Luxembourg company register identifies them as co-owners when Sogeco Participations was established and registered on December 14, 2004. Subsequent French corporate records identify Elena Timchenko as the legal representative of Sogeco Holding, and President of SAS Le Club de Cavaliere. By a legal process of merger dated July 31, 2005, and signed by Mrs Timchenko, she became the principal manager of the hotel business, and with her husband, the principal beneficiaries of the hotel’s profits.

The hero of the Mills novel, Tom Nash, bought his place from a thoracic surgeon, who had commissioned it in Art Nouveau style. It is Nash’s haven after a career as a British special operations and intelligence agent trying to pilot the counter-revolution out of the British Embassy in St. Petersburg in 1919, and in Berlin in the 20’s.
His run-ins with the Cheka in 1919 led him to kill two Russians from the get-go, release a third, and lose his pregnant Russian girlfriend, who is apparently judged by Felix Dzerzhinsky to have been on the wrong side of the Revolution. She, Irina Bibikov (a misspelling that starts on page 3 and isn’t corrected), is recaptured after Nash’s getaway plan for her is betrayed, and she is executed. After another decade of deeds so nasty they begin to weigh on his sanity, Nash’s house near Le Rayol is therapeutic for his Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. But he’s still made of sterling stuff — before the book is done and Dzerzhinsky is misspelled at the climax, our hero kills another two men with his bare hands, and helps with the despatch of several others. Some of the killing is done in self-defence; some in the spirit of patriotism; most of it out of revenge for the deaths of Irina and Hector, Nash’s dog.

Along the way, Mills treats his readers to a broad atlas of ethnic and race hatred, starting with the Russians and the Bolshevik supporters who prove to be unspeakably cruel, on the take, and bad shots. “In Kharkov they went for scalping and hand flaying; in Voronezh they favoured rolling you around in a barrel hammered through with nails. Crucifixion , stoning and impalement were commonplace, and in Orel they liked to pour water over their victims, leaving them to freeze outside overnight into crystal statutes. This is what the Revolution had brought out in men: not the best, but the very worst…” At least one real MI6 agent, Paul Dukes, makes a cameo appearance, putting the finger on the first Russian whom Nash kills.

By the time Nash reappears at his ease in France, he has acquired the following views about other nations: the Turks have “notoriously long memories and a rare gift for revenge”; the Persians (Iranians) were “venal, money-grubbing people…never to be trusted”. The Germans, on the other hand, just four years shy of another of their world wars, Tom professes to have “always had a lot of time for…and put to rest any prejudice left over from the Great War”. Nash had managed this feat by travelling around Germany in the 1920s, and afterwards reading a novel by a German friend in France – “his admiration for Klaus was close to boundless.”

The one Frenchman to emerge out of the plot with a definable character, a police commissaire named Roche (sic), turns out to be so clever at interrogating our hero on suspicion of murder, the latter judged the former to be “either a genius or he was holding back a trump. As the conversation wore on, Tom began to fear that both were true.”

As for Nash’s British handler and friend Leonard, a Secret Service agent on secondment in London to the senior civil servant in charge of the Foreign Office, he turns out to be a brief target for suspicion, but then confirms his innocence with the medal-winning cliché of the entire novel: “Leonard didn’t have a Communist bone in his body.”

Not only that. For Leonard turns out to have masterminded a plot of his own, duping all of the Russians in the end, and turning into double agents those of them who belong to the Cheka and who manage to survive Nash’s payback. “People say information is power, but so is disinformation. We’ll have an open channel to Stalin. We’ll be able to tell the Soviets everything we want them to hear. Think about it”, Leonard confides in Nash. “They’ll have their own man [himself as false double agent] in the British Foreign Office.”

Don’t mind the self-inflating singular, as Leonard and our hero imagine that they, they alone, will fool Moscow – as if the Soviets had no other British assets less duplicitous or more informative than they were.

And there’s one strategic point that our heroic Anglo-Teutons make between themselves – Hitler was an aberration on the way to the natural British alliance with Germany. But Russia – well, that’s the natural enemy. “Yes, Hitler’s a dangerous lunatic,” Leonard tells Nash, “but we are already under attack from the Soviets. They’ve never understood why the revolution didn’t spread beyond their borders. They’ve never accepted it. And they’re doing everything in their power to change that…God only knows what else they’re up to.”

This is said just before the suspect Russian émigrés, Yevgeny and Fanya, invite Nash, Leonard and everyone else in their holiday party to dinner at their place at Collobrieres. For a second dessert, Nash notes they have served roast quinces with verjus and vanilla. Quinces in France in July? That little detail is as unlikely as all the big ones in this plot.

That leaves the Psychology of Mr Mills – the Good v. the Bad.

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