A Traitor’s Heart by Ben Creed: Twisting, turning and high stakes hunt for a merciless executioner – book review –

When Leningrad’s city streets are haunted by a murderer in the winter of 1952, there’s only one man with the brains and insight to track down the brutal killer.
A Traitor’s Heart by Ben CreedA Traitor’s Heart by Ben Creed
A Traitor’s Heart by Ben Creed

But former Soviet militia lieutenant Revol Rossel is close to death in a freezing Arctic Gulag three thousand miles away after being classed as ‘an enemy of the people’ in Stalin’s Russia. What price will he have to pay if he is freed to join the manhunt?

Two years ago, and under the pseudonym Ben Creed, the writing team of Chris Rickaby, an advertising copywriter, and Barney Thompson, a classically trained musician who studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory and now works as an editor, combined their talents on City of Ghosts, the first of a dark, historical crime series that became The Times’ Best New Thriller.

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With its gripping and disturbingly authentic evocation of the cruel, authoritarian world of Soviet Russia and the long, menacing shadow of total state control, the book won wide critical acclaim... so it’s little surprise that readers have been counting down the arrival of the next Revol Rossel thriller.

In the winter of 1952, Leningrad’s icy streets are stalked by vicious killer. And in a country known for its superstition and paranoia, one name is whispered everywhere – Koshchei the Immortal, a sinister figure from Slavic folklore, has returned, the people say.

This new ‘Koshchei’ is an invisible killer who cuts out the tongue of his victims and replaces it with a scroll of paper containing a few lines of what seems to be Italian verse by the likes of Niccolò Machiavelli, the medieval master of deceit.

Far away in a labour colony above the Arctic Circle, threatened by the vicious criminals who rule the camp, former lieutenant Revol Rossel is close to death. As helicopter blades whip the snow into hallucinatory flurries, Rossel watches the arrival of a man he hates... Major Oleg Nikitin, the state interrogator who cut off two of his violinist’s fingers.

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Accompanied by skilled aviator Tanya ‘Vassya’ Vasilievna, Rossel’s one-time lover, Nikitin promises to permanently rescue Rossel from the camp if he helps him to hunt down the mysterious Koshchei... a proposition that Rossel can’t refuse if he wants to survive.

On the trail, they start uncover more riddles, including one centred on the ruins of Hitler’s bunker, the Fuhrer’s own copy of a Renaissance manual for tyrants, and a secret code hidden inside it that leads to a weapon of unimaginable power... a weapon coveted by the scheming plotters of Stalin’s Kremlin.

But what Rossel and Nikitin don’t yet know is that the mystery and the murderer are inextricably linked. And to save themselves they must not only catch Koshchei but also uncover the identity of another ghost... a ghost hiding among the remnants of Hitler’s once all-powerful Third Reich.

A Traitor’s Heart is everything that fans of this riveting series could want... a tense, spine-tingling page-turner steeped in the misery of life and death under Stalin’s iron fist, and rich in the kind of historical detail that makes time and place breathtakingly real.

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It’s a shadowy mystery that unsurprisingly stretches back to the Kremlin and the horrors of the Third Reich, and centres on a crack squad of soldiers who saw action in the deadly battles at Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin.

And thrust once more into the complex, twisting, turning and high stakes hunt for a merciless executioner is conservatoire-trained violinist Rossel, a born survivor who has never lost the music in his soul but who has developed a carapace as hard as a ring of steel to protect him from the desperate cruelties of the gulag. He must risk his life on an untrustworthy alliance with Nikitin, and the whims of a lethal, paranoid state.

With the threat to Rossel’s life a constant from start to finish, the intriguing dynamics between Rossel and Nikitin always firmly at centre stage, and a pulsating plot with disparate threads linked to the writings of Machiavelli, Wagner’s Ring Cycle and rumours of Hitler’s gold, Creed’s new thriller is the perfect blend of brawn and brains. Don’t miss it!

(Welbeck, paperback, £8.99)