Graham Hurley is, for me, one of the outstanding crime writers of this generation. His Joe Faraday series was simply wonderful, and the Jimmy Suttle spin-off books were just as good. His Enora Andresson series is very different, but equally compelling. It is only relatively recently, though, that I became aware of Hurley’s fascination with military history, and so I jumped at the chance to read and review Kyiv. We know the city as Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and in this novel Hurley starts with the fateful day, 22nd June 1941 when Adolf Hitler, desperate for Ukraine’s agricultural riches, but with an eye on the oil fields of the Caucuses beyond, launched Operation Barbarossa.
Knowing, as we do now, that the invasion of Russia was a disastrous strategic mistake which eventually brought the downfall of the Third Reich, shouldn’t diminish our appreciation of this book. In some ways, we are in John Lawton and Philip Kerr territory here, with the complex mixture of real life characters and fictional creations. For some of the real people, please see the infographic at the end of this review. The novel focuses on two (fictional) people, Isobel ‘Bella’ Menzies and Tam Moncrieff. Both work for British intelligence. Moncrieff is loyal to Britain, but Bella’s allegiance is more ambiguous. She works for both Russia and Britain, and both states seem to be well aware of this. Naturally, before the launch of Barbarossa, Stalin was – on paper, at least – an ally of Hitler, so what now?
Bella is sent on a mysterious mission to Moscow but, with the fearsome NKVD (Narodny Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) on her case, she diverts to Kyiv, with the German Army Group Centre just days away from capturing the city. Soon, the shattered remains of the Red Army (and party officials like Nikita Kruschev) are scrambling eastwards over the River Dnieper and the bemused Ukranians, most of them no fans of the departing Soviets, look on as the Germans arrive and start what seems to be a fairly peaceful Nazification of Kyiv. This soon changes, however. Pro-Soviet agents have planted huge bombs in many of the city’s major buildings, and in particular those they knew that the new German administration would appropriate as accommodation for their army of bureaucrats. These bombs are detonated, one by one, by radio signal, and all hell breaks loose.
Back in Britain, Tam Moncrieff has been made a fool of by fellow intelligence officer Kim Philby, and is then abducted and drugged. When he finally finds himself free, much of his memory has gone. Someone has used him to send a mocking message to the British intelligence agencies, but who?
Bella, meanwhile, has met Larissa, a Ukranian journalist, and they have become lovers. As the SS attempt to end the bombings Bella falls foul of sadistic Standartenführer Kalb, but with the help of Wilhelm Strauss, a sympathetic Abwehr officer she knew from her days in Berlin before the war, she and Larissa play a dangerous cat and mouse game with Kalb.
Hurley depicts Strauss as a “good German’ in a similar way that Philip Kerr treated Bernie Gunther, but for all his disgust at the tactics of the SS, Strauss is unable to prevent one of the most horrific and bestial acts of the war being visited on the Jews of Kyiv.
William Tecumseh Sherman famously stated, “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all Hell.” Graham Hurley paints as hellish a picture of war as you could wish to read, and spares neither the Germans or the Soviets as he describes their predilection for barbarity. Onto this grim background, he paints a haunting picture of human love and suffering. Kyiv is published by Head of Zeus and is out on 8th July.