01 October 2019

A Russian is Coming! A Russian is Coming!

Russian Roulette [Kosygin is Coming]
Tom Ardies
Toronto: PaperJacks, 1975
207 pages

Tom Ardies' thrillers fall into two neat categories: those published under his own name, and those written under the nom de plume "Jack Trolley." The latter books had a far better time with the critics. Balboa Firefly, his first Trolley thriller, received a star review in Publishers Weekly (31 October 1994), with the uncredited reviewer lamenting that it had been sixteen years since Ardies' last novel. Kosygin is Coming, filmed and reissued as Russian Roulette, received a lesser welcome in the pages of Kirkus (11 January 1973):
Some rather indeterminate idiocy about Timothy Shaver, temporarily suspended from the Mounties, who is assigned to keep Kosygin safe when he comes to Vancouver on an official visit by maintaining the surveillance of a professional protester (also possibly CIA). He disappears. So will this – essentially a cheerfully nonstop non sequitur.
I share this because Russian Roulette reads much like the work of two different hands. The first 155 pages promise the great Canadian Cold War Thriller, while the final fifty-two read like an uninspired parody.

Alexai Kosygin
1904 - 1980
Corporal Timothy Shaver, RCMP, is our hero. Suspended without pay for slugging a superior, he's called to a dank Vancouver bar run by war amputees. There he meets a Special Branch man named Petapiece, who offers the corporal a means of keeping his job. Soviet premier Alexai Kosygin will soon be making an eight-day visit to Canada, and the KGB is concerned about the Vancouver stop. Shaver's assignment, should he choose to accept it, is to make scarce a small-time agitator named Rudolphe Henke, whom the Soviets consider a security risk. It's hard to understand their concern. An ageing drunk, Henke's days are consumed by reading newspapers, attending demonstrations, and masturbation.

Petapiece could have been more forthcoming about Henke. Unbeknownst to the Soviets, there's a reason why the Special Branch doesn't take the threat seriously – it is for this reason that they've thrown it to a disgraced low-level like Shaver.

And yet, the assignment proves too much. Shaver's initial plan is to befriend his target by passing himself off as a sympathetic ex-Toronto Telegram reporter. but Henke sees through the ruse and spits in his face. Plan B is to simply show up at Henke's rooming house, flash his badge, take the man into custody, and hope that the Civil Liberties Union (read: Civil Liberties Association) isn't made aware. He breaks in, only to find evidence of a kidnapping. Shaver lies in his next visit to the war amps bar, telling Petapiece that he's got Henke hidden away somewhere.

Shaver's subsequent desperate search for the shit-disturber is interrupted by an attempt on his own life by an assassin imported from Detroit... because, you see, things aren't quite as Petapiece portrayed.

There are no spoilers in my criticism of the final chapters. Vancouverites know that theirs are not the streets of San Francisco. The long, slow crawl over the Lion's Gate Bridge is nothing like the chase scene in Bullit. Would gunshots and a car set alight by incendiary devices divert a foreign leader's motorcade? I suggest they would. The final two pages, in which a wedding is announced, are particularly painful.

I haven't given this novel its due. The premise is strong, the plot is clever, and the intrigue high. It's easy to understand the interest in bringing it to the screen, just as it's easy to see why PaperJacks brought out a movie tie-in. Sadly, the novel has been out-of-print ever since. The Kirkus reviewer was right –the novel has disappeared. Despite the flaws, it deserved a much longer life. It deserves to be read today.

Trivia: Kosygin did indeed come to Canada. A reformist, his 1971 eight-day visit was seen as an effort to thaw the Cold War. Ardies may have taken some inspiration from an assault on the Soviet Premier, which took place while walking with Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau on Parliament Hill.

Object: A poorly produced mass market paperback, the best that might be said is that it held together in the reading.

But then our new puppy got a hold of it.

Access: The 1974 first edition, Kosygin is Coming, was published in Toronto and New York by Doubleday. The following year, Angus & Robertson published the novel in the UK. Under the title Russian Roulette, movie tie-in editions were published by PaperJacks (Canada) and Panther (UK). I can find no evidence of any American edition after the Doubleday.

Library and Archives Canada and eight of our academic libraries have copies of Kosygin is Coming. The Vancouver Public Library does not. For shame.

Copies of Kosygin is Coming are plentiful and cheap. Ignore the New Hampshire bookseller asking US$80. Russian Roulette is cheaper still. Pay no more than three dollars.

Interestingly, the only translation has been to the Chinese: 最危險的一日 (1977). It would appear the Russians weren't interested.

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