Translated by Antonina W. Bouis
This Russian novel could hardly be more topical, particularly given the recent much-reported assassination attempt on opposition figure Alexei Navalny, as well as the bodged Skripal poisonings in the UK in 2018. First published in Russian in 2020, Untraceable has just been published in English translation by indie publisher Head of Zeus.
The novel is a bit of “deadly game of cat and mouse” as a cheesy ad might say, and the prose itself can be a bit airport novel, although it veers closer to literary than genre fiction with its focus on moral degeneracy and characterization as much as on plot, with both main characters haunted by spectres of the past.
Professor Kalitin has spent his working life developing and perfecting an incredibly powerful – and untraceable – neurotoxin, Neophyte (clearly modelled on Novichok). The labour of love to which the creepy Kalitin has dedicated himself in his covert laboratories in the Russian Far East (on “the Island”) means he has an unfathomable amount of blood on his hands, both animal and human, and a Neophyte-related incident even led to the accidental death of his wife, Vera. Having defected from Russia, he has lived a secret life under a new identity for many years, squirrelled away in Germany. However, after he is invited to take part in a German investigation into a political poisoning, his cover is blown and he has the distinct sense that time is beginning to run out for him.
Meanwhile, Shershnev, another iniquitous individual, is tasked with travelling from Russia to take Kalitin out with his own chemical weapon. Along with an accomplice, Shershnev sets out on a murderous road trip, although events do not unfold as smoothly as planned.
Untraceable is a slow-burn thriller, not fast-paced like Tom Rob Smith’s Booker-longlisted, edge-of-the-seat Child 44., of which it is faintly resonant. While the two main characters are tainted by a form of moral poison, the merciless toxin developed by Professor Kalitin feels like another principal character in its slipperiness and its terrible potency.
“He began his attempts to tame his creation, solve the problems of preservation, stability – without that he could not hope for certification, for its production.
But Neophyte turned out to be excessively sensitive ad high-spirited. If he changed the original composition just an iota, the whole became unbalanced. Neophyte was born to be just as it was; limited in use because of its wildness, its instant passion to kill.“
With the book’s uncompromising illumination of moral corruption and the continued impact of the Soviet legacy on modern Russia, I was not surprised to learn that Lebedev no longer lives in Moscow, or even Russia (he is based in Berlin). While Neophyte might not leave a detectable trace, the taint it leaves on those who weaponize it is indelible. As one short-lived character, Kazarnovsky, notes: “I don’t know about the enemies, but we’re doing a very good job of destroying ourselves“.