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The Red House by Derek Lambert

First published in Great Britain in 1972; published by HarperCollins Crime Club on November 2, 2017

The Red House is a novel of cold war intrigue, published at a time when the cold war was still raging. It isn’t a traditional spy novel, although the KGB and CIA play important roles in the story. Rather, The Red House is the story of a Russian’s disillusionment with the Soviet system and a young American’s disillusionment with a government (and father) who want him to put patriotism ahead of love.

Diplomat Vladimir Zhukov arrives in United States in 1968, newly appointed as the Soviet Union’s second secretary. Two KGB minders are determined to keep Zhukov from enjoying the decadent American pleasures that might tempt him to defect. The Soviet ambassador, on the other hand, is a bit more trusting — but not so trusting that he forgets how the game is played.

Zhukov is asked to spy on anyone of interest, while the Americans ask a Brit named Massingham to cozy up to Zhukov. Massingham’s bored wife wants to cozy up to Zhukov for reasons of her own. Her taste for seduction has served Massingham well in the past.

Meanwhile, Zhukov’s daughter Natasha is trying to adjust to her time in decadent D.C., including the unexpected attention of the dashing Charlie Hardin, who is doing a favor for his father, an FBI agent. Natasha appreciates the freedom the US offers, despite her reservations about American politics and poverty. Feelings traditionally get in the way of duty in spy novels that feature a spy who becomes sexually involved with a target, and that theme eventually animates the novel’s plot.

The novel reflects the hawk/dove division of 1968, the fear that southeast Asian governments will fall to communism like dominos in the absence of an American presence in Vietnam versus rejection of such a dubious theory as justification for so many pointless American deaths. The hawk/dove division is also represented by the justifiable concern that the Soviet Union would use military force to suppress dissenters in Czechoslovakia. Those issues contribute to the respective moral dilemmas that Charlie and Zhukov experience as the novel gains steam.

The Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, in fact, gives Zhukov reason to question his patriotism as he watches tanks roll into Prague on televisions in various New York bars, seeing hope in the faces of young men standing up for change. The novel makes the point that in a city like New York, a city built by the labor of immigrants, a Russian can sit in a certain kind of bar with Germans and Americans and Australians and enjoy the alcohol-fueled fellowship of humanity, a fellowship that is unimpaired by the political differences of their nations’ rulers. In a different kind of bar, however, political philosophies mix less easily, as Zhukov discovers in one of the plot’s turning points.

The Red House is about nationalism and loyalty, political conflict and conflicts of the heart. The novel moves at a deliberate pace — too deliberate in the first half, as the story meanders while establishing the characters in an abundance of detail. Yet tension begins to mount in the last third of the novel as Zhukov finds himself cornered both by his reaction to world events and by a moment of poor judgment. Derek Lambert avoids tugging at the reader’s heartstrings, but there is both sadness and satisfaction in an ending that allows the power of love and the ugliness of politics to coexist.


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