From Russia with love – and money

Preface, £12.99
Anna Blundy, an impossibly glamorous-looking journalist and daughter of the late foreign correspondent Peter Blundy, knows her subject well. A graduate of a Russian at Oxford, she lived in Russia first as a translator, then a blues singer and then as foreign correspondent for a national newspaper.

All this experience translates into a terrifically enjoyable yarn that begins in the 1980s, when a London teenager called Mo goes to Moscow on a school trip and meets boy gangster Pavel and prostitute Katya. Mo is naively in love with the Soviet Union – at home her room is covered in Gorbachev posters. Of course, Katya and Pavel – who comes from a life of violence and grime in a freezing Siberian city – know better. Flash forward 10 years. Pavel has gone from illegal vodka trafficking to oligarch status and owns most of the Soviet Union’s steel. His beautiful, fur-clad wife is Katya – and the pair look the image of luxurious, glamorous luckiness. But when Mo, now also a beauty, meets Pavel again and they re-start their affair, she sees all is not so happy in the diamond and champagne-washed world of the oligarchy and their wives.

Blundy is on to a winning formula: oodles of cash, a mysterious hero from that fascinating, enigmatic breed of oligarchal men, and a brilliant range of settings. One moment we’re in grimy Soviet Russia, the next the gilded world of Moscow and London’s most opulent hotels, houses and jets. Perhaps it’s not profound, but it’s clever, well-written and a jolly nice way to pass your commute or time on the sofa.

Pilgrims: A Lake Wobegon Romance
By Garrison Keillor
Faber & Faber, £16.99
THE Prolific Keillor, most famous for his hypnotic, brilliantly observed radio show about the fictional middle-American community of Lake Wobegon, is back with another delight. Pilgrims is a hilarious tale of Americans abroad, as well as a spirited, wry look at a late middle-aged lady’s break for freedom from the stultifying confines of her becalmed marriage to a very European idea of La Dolce Vita.

The pilgrims are a group of 12 Lake Wobegon-ers, funded by a moment of temporarily insane generosity of Keillor himself (yes, he is a character in his own book) to go to Rome to honour the grave of Lake Wobegon war hero Gussie Norlander, who died while liberating the city in 1944.
It’s not long, of course, before the patriotism of the mission becomes subsumed by the personal foibles and agendas of the group. Most of them end up doing just what they do at home: talk about things they already know (themselves), and finding the joys of the Coliseum counterbalanced by the unpleasantness of tiny European beds (not made for grown Americans) and Roman pizza (Domino’s is better).

At the plot’s core though, is Margie and her escapist voyage. With a whole country full of men speaking the language of love, she suddenly finds herself in a new plane of existence and rebirth. She’s presented with the utmost affection and astuteness by an author who excels at both. A delightful read.

By Cody McFadyen
Hodder, £6.99
On first glance, this looks like just another airport thriller – raised red lettering and a growling sub-head: “Locked away but not allowed to die.”

Yet it’s actually a beautifully written story, which makes it haunting and lyrical, as well as horrifyingly gory, which it is too. McFadyen’s heroine, Smoky Barrett, returns for her fourth outing, and whether you’ve met her before or not, she’s clearly a complex, intelligent character. “I spend my life peering into the darkness these people radiate,” she explains, describing the serial killers she chases. “It’s a cold blackness, filled with mewls and skittering things, high-pitched screeching laughter, unmentionable moans. I have killed bad men and been hunted by them too. It is my choice and my life.” Three years earlier, a serial killer killed her husband in front of her, then caused the death of her daughter, and left her with a methodically executed scar down the side of her face.

Now, she’s on a new case. A woman is dumped outside a wedding she’s attending, having been kidnapped eight years ago and tortured in the interim. She’s traumatised nearly to death. Turns out, she’s a former LAPD homicide detective, but the captor had asked for no ransom and there are no suspects. As Barrett’s team begin to investigate, they realise they’re dealing with a killer as professional as them, with a calculated, totally impersonal tie to his murders. Oh, and this psychopath never makes mistakes.

This is that rare combination of grit, gore and brilliant writing and, if you read one thriller this winter, make it this one.