From the perspective of a troubled 21st century it’s often interesting to look back on earlier chapters of turbulent history – Alastair Maclean’s Ice Station Zebra is a classic, evoking the Cold War of the 1960s in a taut, exciting package, and standard against which many are judged to this day. There have been more espionage thrillers written and filmed than you can shake a stick at, they became very much a sub-genre in their own right, and the South African writer the late Anthony Trew (1906 – 1996), while his first forte was perhaps the sea in general, made an interesting contribution with his 1975 outing The Zhukov Briefing.
I know Trew’s work from my early exposure, e.g., Death of a Supertanker (1978), which I read in the 1980s, but I was never able to collect as many of his novels as I would have liked, and on a recent foray into the state’s biggest book exchange I happened upon The Zhukov Briefing, in the Fontana edition I am most familiar with from those days.
Some may recall the prolonged dramas in the Baltic in the 1990s as the Swedish military scoured their coastal waters for Soviet submarines lying close inshore, presumably conducting espionage, so this novel, written twenty years earlier as a work of fiction, is somewhat prescient. It features a Soviet ballistic missile submarine going aground on the Norwegian island of Vrakoy, and the political and espionage wrangles surrounding it during the week before Russian salvage teams can refloat it. Not just any boat, of course, but the newest, biggest and most secret, thus the Russians’ haste to downplay its importance and the West’s rush to score an intelligence coup, through the abduction of a Russian officer and a clever attempt to offload blame by trying to convince him he had been taken by Chinese agents.
Clearly, Trew is at his best when writing about the sea itself and the technology with which humans tackle it. The opening chapters, describing the Zhukov getting into difficulty on her cruise from Leningrad to Murmansk via the Baltic and Norwegian Seas, are the most compelling part of the book, as once the submarine has been safely grounded to save her from doing down (an explosion in the forward torpedo room compromised her hull) the narrative changes character. It becomes a series of initiatives executed by a plethora of characters, enough for it to become a little difficult at times to remember who’s who, and the pace and conviction of the opening section is never quite recovered. The Russian captain, so central to events at the beginning, is quite forgotten by the end. However, the tiny island and its isolated community is brought to life well, such that one can visualise it easily.
As a picture of the espionage community over forty years ago it is an interesting window on the past – this is the age before personal computers or mobile phones, telex was in use (a predecessor to fax), when aircraft designed in the 1950s remained in service, and World War II was in easy living memory – one character had been a Quisling, a Norwegian Nazi collaborator, for instance. Either Trew runs askew on some technical details or the typset introduced errors (the presentation of the text features a fair few typographical problems), “Lockheed SR-1A operating from the Keflavik Air Base,” is clearly a typo for SR-71, but they operated out of Beal AFB in California, and did not land during missions, refuelling as often as necessary. Perhaps this was not fully appreciated in 1975. Narrative is neither as flowing nor as tidily trimmed as is typically demanded these days, but he flourishes when evoking the Arctic seaways.
It’s an entertaining read if you can get your thinking gear around the dozens of characters coming and going, and there are some clever twists toward the end. If you’re in the mood for an historical thriller and fancy some steel-and-salt-water, this one stands up well 43 years on.
Cheers, Mike Adamson