Red Star Rising by Brian Freemantle

When it comes to espionage fiction I am usually in the cold dark and gray camp. LeCarre (early not late), Deighton, etc. so Brian Freemantle’s Charlie Muffin seemed in my wheelhouse.

Despite my preferecne of reading a character of series in order I decided to read Red Star Rising without having read any of the previous books.

It turned out to be classic cold war spy fiction even though it was set in post war Europe. Here is the plot summary from the dust jacket:

The body of a murdered, tortured Russian has been found in Moscow, which isn’t unusual in the crime-ridden city. What is different is that this corpse is on the lawn of the British embassy.

Eager to prevent an international incident, London dispatches veteran MI5 agent Charlie Muffin to investigate. Charlie is an old hand who recognizes that little has changed in the post–Soviet Union, most definitely not the espionage enmity between Russia, Britain, and America. The search for the identity of the murdered man enmeshes Charlie in what might be the biggest attempted espionage coup of his career.

Being in Moscow has very personal implications for Charlie, too. It provides the opportunity for a re-union with his Russian wife, Natalia, and their young daughter, whom he had to abandon because of a hurried recall to the UK five years earlier. It’s also the chance to persuade the reluctant Natalia, an officer in Russia’s FSB intelligence service, to return with him to London.

In classic spy fiction fashion Charlie is fighting the bad guys, often his superiors and his own demons/past. On top of this you have a constantly shifting set of puzzle pieces that he has to put together.

On a basic level there is the mystery of the dead body. On another level is the internal-politics and security of the embassy. And over it all is the geopolitical maneuvering motivating it all. And if this is not enough Charlie is attempting to put his family back together.

Freemantle does a good job of weaving all of this threads together and keeping the pace moving. Just when you think you have a handle on what is going on the puzzle pieces move and you have to rethink. And it is never clear, to Charlie or the reader, just exactly what Charlie really wants professionally or personaly.

Booklist has a nice description of Charlie and the book:

Alternately cautious and daring, self-critical, pragmatic, and fatalistically idealistic, the maverick Muffin will appeal to fans of John le Carré’s George Smiley and to readers of classic espionage novels. The USSR is now Russia, and the KGB is now the FSB, but this is still a story of telephone booths and old-school spycraft—old-school quality, too.

If I had one complaint it was that the twists and turns at the end threatened to overwhelm the story. It gets rather complicated and convoluted by the end. Freemantle pulls it off but it is a bit much.

That aside, fans of classic espionage fiction will enjoy this version updated to the post-cold war world.

In the Mail: Red Star Rising

Red Star Rising: A Thriller by Brian Freemantle

Publishers Weekly

Last seen in 2002’s Kings of Many Castles, working-class British spy Charlie Muffin once again proves that experience and intelligence (on the part of both author and hero) are at least as important as flying fists and explosions in this entertaining entry in Freemantle’s long-running series. When a faceless body turns up on the grounds of the British Embassy in Moscow, Charlie’s superiors send him to Russia to solve the mystery: who’s the corpse and why was he left face down, or rather no face down, in the flower garden? Nothing is as it seems as the Russian authorities wrestle with the British over who has jurisdiction, whose agents are the bigger liars, and whose government is the most underhanded. Charlie isn’t much for action, gunplay, and excitement. In fact, his relationship with his Russian intelligence officer wife, Natalie, and daughter Sasha provides most of the overt suspense, but his slow fitting together of all the pieces related to the crime provides genuine interest.