The Distinguished Assassin – Reviews

The Distinguished Assassin is Professor Aleksei Klebnikov, banished to a Gulag labour camp in 1949 on trumped-up charges. Set free in 1952, he becomes a hitman for a gangster, assigned to murder six brutal, highly placed Communist officials. Klebnikov’s ultimate aim is to kill the man responsible for his captivity and who, he believes, seduced his wife in his absence. The story is told in alternate chapters covering his time as prisoner and after his release. Through Klebnikov, the plight of the Russian people under Stalinist rule is grippingly demonstrated. Taussig’s style – short on dialogue and long on descriptions and Klebnikov’s thoughts – takes a bit of getting used to, but turns out to be effective for the passionate political and emotional content of his novel.”
Marcel Berlins, The Times

 

“Le Carré-esque, dense and meditative…dealing with big issues of how a man can become evil in a world that has lost its way.”
Alex HeminsleyBBC Radio 2 Arts Show

 

“Veering between 1949 and 1955 in Soviet Russia, this hugely intriguing tale follows Aleksei Klebnikov, former soldier and now intellectual, through the kinds of hell we can only try to imagine.

For a short time, Aleksei is as near content as it is possible to be living with critical shortages of food and other necessities, overlooked by a repressive and cruel state machine, and the imminent danger in life for anybody who does not toe the party line. With his beautiful wife Natasha and daughter Katya, he is absorbed enough to ignore these minor problems and make the best he can of life.

But Aleksei has unwittingly come to the attention of the authorities, in the vindictive persona of MVD officer, Vladimir Primakov. And Primakov has his eye on Natasha.

Ripped from his family for no good reason, Aleksei is sent to Kolyma in the far east of Russia, where cruelty and deprivation reigns, to a hard labour camp run by guards who have no regard for human life and where the weather forms the harshest of backdrops for men who have no hope and, for some, no way out.

Fortunately, Aleksei carries with him memories of his family, to help him endure, if not quite overcoming the cruel and deadly conditions. It is here that he comes to the attention of notorious thief-in-law (gangster) Ivan Bessonov, who offers him a mission for when he gets out and returns to his family.

The mission is to assassinate six leading communists – all influential party members – who have used their positions to abuse and/or kill for personal gain or gratification. At first Aleksei refuses; he is not a killer. But he is a principled and desperate man, and the offer of money gives him hope for the future. But there is a condition: he must complete the kills within one year.

Once free of Kolyma, he sets off for home and his family. But things have changed. Vladimir Primakov has done the worst possible thing: he has kept his threat and taken Natasha as his own. Filled with impotent fury, Aleksei sets about tracking down his targets, studying their movements carefully before moving in for the kill. But now he has added another name to his list – that of Vladimir Primakov.

This is not a comfortable read – but nor is it meant to be. We see the gradual moral destruction of a man doing what he has to to survive, all the time being eaten away by the knowledge that his wife and daughter have betrayed him. Or have they?

From the bitterly harsh conditions of the labour camp, the cruelty of guards and fellow inmates, to a ‘freedom’ which is nothing of the sort, Aleksei follows a path he cannot leave. He’s the victim of a terrifying system that allows and even encourages the worst of society to prosper and flourish while ripping the heart out of its ordinary citizens. But what it cannot do in – Aleksei’s case, at least – is to take his soul. Not until he is ready.

Filled with larger than life characters, good and bad, every page draws you into a world that we might think is terrifyingly unreal… yet we also know from recent history certainly isn’t. This is a compelling read, and Nick Taussig has absolutely nailed the background, the conditions, the people – and the dilemma of a man betrayed by the system, the authorities, the functionaries and even the weather itself… Recommended.”
Adrian Magson, Shotsmag

 

★★★★
Natasha HardingThe Sun

 

“Nick Taussig is determined we should never forget the brutal excesses of Stalin’s Soviet Russia…

So what better way to recall a regime defined by its ruthless state control and vicious secret police than a novel which combines politics, crime and history in a page-turning and yet moving and thought-provoking thriller.

The Distinguished Assassin, written by a man steeped in Russian studies and the author of the critically acclaimed novels Love and Mayhem, Don Don and Gorilla Guerrilla, is the compelling story of a persecuted intellectual who takes deadly revenge against six leading Communists.

It’s a daring and complex plot which takes us from the grim streets of 1950s Moscow deep into a labour camp in the heart of Siberia’s Gulag hell and has distinct echoes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s groundbreaking book The Gulag Archipelago.

Inevitably, Taussig’s account of how an essentially good man turns bad in a country which has lost its moral compass is an emotional and harrowing reading experience but stays true to its purpose of exposing the terrible realities of Stalinist Russia.

It’s 1952 and Moscow is dominated by the dark, brooding presence of Stalin. Even its once magnificent architecture has been subsumed by buildings reflecting the Soviet state – butch and ugly, lacking in subtlety and humility.

The downtrodden, dirty, deprived city dwellers drown their sorrows in vodka, ‘the great elixir of the Union, the opiate of the Soviet masses.’

War hero and history professor Aleksei Klebnikov, who was banned from his teaching job at Moscow’s State University after accusations of involvement in anti-Soviet propaganda, is incarcerated in a labour camp in Kolyma.

He has been there for three years after MVD agents, vicious state security operatives full of hate, mistrust and even madness, took him from his home, tortured him and then packed him off to Siberia.

Chief architect of Aleksei’s persecution was agent Vladimir Primakov but worst of all was that Aleksei was betrayed by his beautiful wife Natasha who is now living with Primakov in their Moscow apartment.

Isolated from his family, overworked and starved almost to death, Aleksei has discovered that in the camps, it is far worse to be a political dissident than a violent criminal.

One of the crooks, Ivan Ivanovich, has a special interest in Aleksei and offers to help him escape from the camp on the condition that he takes on a highly paid mission to assassinate six leading Communist apparatchiks.

It’s an offer that Aleksei can’t refuse and he determines to add another name to his death list … evil MVD agent Primakov who stole his wife.

But, with just one man left to kill, Aleksei is suddenly reunited with Natasha and discovers that all is not quite what it seems and that perhaps he has an even greater enemy than Primakov, his wife and the Communist system…

Taussig’s style is robust, descriptive, passionate and searingly honest. Through the horrifying plight of Aleksei, we see the wider picture of a country brought to its knees by the immovable, mind-numbing, emotionally bankrupt and self-serving logic of a Communist machine which puts politics before people.

Fast-paced, brimming with suspense and intelligently imagined, The Distinguished Assassin is a heart-felt reminder of the inhumanities of state repression, and an addictive thriller with a powerful moral message.”
Pam NorfolkLancashire Evening Post

 

“This novel ain’t subtle. It’s a sledgehammer of a book which bludgeons its embattled protagonist, and the reader, again and again. Aleksei, the assassin of the title, stumbles from one abasement to another: the killing of his parents, the apparent betrayal of his beloved wife, his incarceration in the remote gulag of Kolyma, and his brief and unhappy career as a reluctant angel of vengeance.

The motley collection of state operatives, criminals and nomenklatura who populate The Distinguished Assassin are about as corrupt and brutal a bunch as you are ever likely to meet. Taussig pokes beneath the grimy undershirts of the Russian experiment, in the aftermath of Stalin’s demise when his lieutenants scrabbled for control, to discover the disease mutating beneath its sallow skin. It’s a seriously grim book.

But it’s a big, emotional novel in the Russian style – not for nothing did the author gain a Master’s in Russian Literature. The Distinguished Assassin is written in prose that’s sometimes muscular and terse, and other times florid and elaborate. In these days of dry and ironic thrills, which tiptoe tastefully through history, Taussig does something very brave: he tells his tale with an impassioned, barely-contained fury. He slaps on the emotion good and thick, cranks up the Russian melodrama – it’s a righteous and unashamedly theatrical novel.

Aleksei’s journey takes him thousands of miles across the USSR, and if his odyssey from respected academic intellectual to expert killer is sometimes a little difficult to swallow, there’s no denying the author’s commitment and knowledge of his subject. Aleksei finds treachery everywhere, in the iron fist of the inhuman state apparatus, to the thieves-in-law, the shadowy criminal hierarchy who pulled strings behind-the-curtains.  Clues in the text remind us that today’s Russia still struggles mightily with its communist legacy.

The Distinguished Assassin may not be to everybody’s taste – as a crime novel, Stalin’s Russia is a precinct well-trodden by Tom Rob Smith, Sam Eastland and William Ryan, for example – but it’s violent and intoxicating and unexpectedly full of heart, and it smacks you in the face like a cold blast of Siberian air.”
Mark HillCrime Thriller Fella

 

“While reading this novel about life in Stalin’s Soviet Russia, I was reminded very strongly of Solzhenitsyn’s book The Gulag Archipelago. This is deliberate, as the author has explained on his blog. As a postgraduate student of Russian literature in London, he himself was tremendously impressed and influenced by Solzhenitsyn’s searingly honest account of life in the work camps of Siberia. Taussig’s latest book is set in those turbulent years following World War II, and it explains how a fundamentally good man can become bad in a country where everything has gone bad.

The assassin of the title is mild-mannered history professor Aleksei Klebnikov. He represents, in fact, Everyman – an educated Soviet citizen, who helped fight agains the Nazis and believed in a better future. Given the increasing drabness, absurd rules and hypocrisy of the Communist regime, he starts to question its fundamental principles. Unsurprisingly, Aleksei is soon accused of anti-Soviet propaganda, banned from his teaching post, torn away from his home and family, tortured and ultimately exiled to the Kolyma camp in Siberia. Isolated from his family, worked and starved nearly to death, he completely loses faith in justice and in the system, especially when he discovers that the prison guards treat violent criminals better than political prisoners. One such criminal is Ivan Ivanovich, who takes Aleksei under his wing to further reinforce his hatred of Communist leaders.

With Ivan’s help, Aleksei escapes from prison, only to find that his wife has betrayed him with the very man who had arrested and humiliated him. Confused and desperate, he accepts a new identity and the mission that Ivan tasks him with: to kill six leading members of the nomenklatura (party leadership) within one year. After all, he tells what remains of his conscience, they are all execrable creatures with blood on their hands, having abused their power and authority. He strikes five times within the next few months, meticulous each time in the preparation and execution of his mission. However, he begins to feel increasingly uncomfortable at taking lives and wonders if he is entitled to play God and judge. Reunited, against all odds, with his wife and daughter in a remote little town on the shores of Lake Baikal, he abandons his killing spree.  The consequences, when they do come, are indescribably dire. It becomes obvious that Aleksei has been nothing but a pawn in a cruel game far bigger than his mission.

This is a powerful story of love and betrayal, of friendship and hatred. It introduces crime fiction fans to an unfamiliar world, with what seems to me great insight into that particular historical period. There are just a couple of things which let the book down. The descriptions are pedestrian at times, using cliched language. Secondly, the author moves back and forth in time to reveal Aleksei’s back story gradually. Perhaps this was done in an effort to spare a lengthy description of Gulag horrors, but there are simply too many time perspectives, which ends up causing confusion. However, I am sure readers can forgive such details for the sake of a cracking read with a strong moral message.”
★★★★
Marina SofiaCrime Fiction Lover

 

“Taussig doesn’t flinch from portraying life in Kolyma in bleak, grisly detail, yet in a matter-of-fact way that makes it all the more powerful. The novel is a compelling portrayal of a nightmarish period of history. Aleksei’s role as everyman reminds us that the horrors of Soviet Russia affected everyone, and Taussig paints an effective portrait of an ordinary man driven to the most extreme actions.”
Gareth Watkins, Killing Time

 

“The violence, poverty and the terror of ordinary people in this era are very graphically portrayed. Recommended as an interesting read.”
Susan WhiteEuro Crime

 

“I was hoping for another Stellar Stalinesque Story – and my God doesn’t Taussig deliver. In short, I loved The Distinguished Assassin. This is a must for anyone who loves a fallible hero – it’s a veritable vodka-soaked voyage of blood and redemption.”
Liam Tarry, The Book Boy

 

“We follow Aleksei’s journey though the harsh conditions of the prison to his release and his realisation that he has to kill these men. He has to put aside his conscience in order to carry out the task and we see his character change as he goes about the assassinations. The book is brutal, it really portrays the harsh conditions Aleksei has to face in the Gulag and you can really feel the cold biting into your soul. It gives you an insight into how a person can change in order to survive and the terror that Soviet citizens must have faced every day. A riveting book with an unexpected twist at the end, definitely a must read.”
Dragons and Fairy Dust

 

“I am extremely impressed and more pertinently astounded by this work. It is a novel of impeccably crafted prose. I have a keen interest in (or rather obsession with) style and technicality, perhaps reflected in my indubitable reverence of Thomas Mann, whom I believe possessed perfection in his technical craft of words. Taussig has reached a simplicity of putting words together, and when a writer finds this beauty, his efforts are surely rewarded because he knows his work is done, what lies on the paper before him has truth because it is art. It reminds me of Hemingway: no word is not needed, no word less meaningful than the next, and also brings to mind Foster Wallace, when he could be simple and spare his words just struck through, they were both masters in creating really true writing. Having read Taussig’s other books, this does feel like the Felix Krull of his career, rather than the Adrian Leverkuhn that it could have been, and I perhaps thought it might have been! Those are two of the greatest novels ever written but I am glad Taussig has created something so refreshingly pure and inventive, with just the right amount of investigation and finished in a clean fashion without delving into the purple or the introspective, all in the manner of the former as opposed to the latter example above. There are so many bits of his style I love, that are so simple and striking and show such maturity and understanding for how well words can work when a writer does indeed understand them, a lot of the chapter openings achieve this, just a random example ‘Summer. Morning. Again, for two months, it will not get dark, the days never-ending, the nights short and white.’ So little that says so much in these descriptive sentences. Choice stuff. Some of my favourite parts were in the camp, in the forest, Aleksei’s suffering in the first period of being there, before he infiltrates the thieves, the interactions, Taussig’s observations, human stuff, it’s all just fantastically handled, and so imaginative, as if we were there! The journey through the forest was amazing, and the period as assassin was some of the most tense gripping stuff. The theme of the novel still has not struck me fully, and I found myself reading a lot of metaphor in its subjects, most specifically Russia. But overall it came me as a novel on the theme of power, above and beyond the themes of love, suffering, loss, politics, only to surprise me half way through and become a novel on the theme of revenge, more so than murder, regret, forgiveness, and right and wrong. But it’s so much more than all these I think, and that’s what makes it great and it does actually astound in its true sense because the core of it will sit with me for some time, and I don’t feel I can sum up the theme of this work after a fresh reading. The same way Proust sits with you for the rest of your life and continues to ‘haunt’ you with its multifarious depths; it’s not just a novel about society, or homosexuality, or jealousy, or habit, it goes so much deeper into human nature. Proust’s novel is almost infinitely deep, and that’s what makes it such a great work of art, and I think in The Distinguished Assassin Taussig’s ability to surprise the reader so effortlessly has thrust his work beyond the reach of any tangible definitions, it leaves you thinking, and not lacking, and to plant an inquisitiveness in the reader is surely a great gift. Within Aleksei’s mind, or rather, upon his shoulder, as we are throughout, we are as confused in our conclusions about human nature, about our own morals, and about what we believe to be right and wrong in this world, as he is. Such a tragic and sad story is his life, yet this is not a depressing novel. It is a discerning and inquisitive novel, and yet very nonpartisan, it simply presents and steps back. Here you are, the facts, now make up your own mind. Aleksei asks himself is he a predator or a protector? We don’t know, we’re at a loss, and only try and find our way through the tragedy with him, learning quickly not to jump to conclusions too soon. He realises the futility of his academic exploits, or, rather, they are killed and drained from him, like a kosher carcass, and his flip to become a purely physical man is as apparent to him as it is to us; but he never questions himself, in the same way as he asks does he protect or does he attack, as to whether he is a creator or a destroyer, a builder or a demolisher, for this is a key motif, that he both takes away and gives back with the same hands, the hands which hold his guns also hold his hammers with which to lay floorboards, and create at the lakehouse and the monastery. He is playing god in the most basic of levels, more basic than the simple moral ones he castigates himself for. He is a man who is constantly trapped. Like the dice tattoo, he is a man between four walls. In prison, in the camp, in the cooler, in the forest, in a jealous rage, in the debt to carry out the kills, in his prison of silence to Natasha about his past, the prison of guilt about killing young Dimitri, and in the monastery. Even in his face to face with Shelomov at the end he is a prisoner of things passed. I think this, his being trapped throughout his entire life, this is what keeps the reader thinking – what is freedom?”
Paul Van Carter, author of Oil on Canvas

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