Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Adventure classics -- The world’s last lovely afternoon

The Man from St. Petersburg

by Ken Follett


The afternoon of the first of May, 1914, is a lovely time at the Norfolk country house of Earl Walden and his beautiful Russian wife, Lydia. Until a motor car, still fairly rare on Walden’s estate “turned into the gravel forecourt and came to a noisy, shuddering halt. . . A short man in a black coat and black felt hat stepped down from the car.

“‘It’s Winston Churchill,’” he said.

“Lydia said: ‘How embarrassing.’”

Against this background, Ken Follett sets his 1982 bestselling thriller, The Man From St. Petersburg.

On that lovely May afternoon, Walden and his wife can’t begin to imagine how much embarrassment Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, will cause them. Churchill’s cause will tear Walden’s and Lydia’s marriage apart and nearly cost them the life and love of their only child, Charlotte. They can’t know any of that, any more than they know that within a few months Europe will be engulfed in the most horrific war their world had ever known.

They can’t know any of that, any more than they can know that a middle-aged itinerant revolutionary named Feliks Kschessensky is on his way to destroy them. (Or that Follett can know neither his book’s characters nor readers will be able to pronounce “Kschessensky,” derived from the family name of the ballerina who had been the mistress of the last czar of Russia.)

Churchill’s request is for Walden to negotiate a secret military alliance between the British government and Russia. The agent from Russia is a nephew both of Lady Walden and the czar, young Prince Aleksey Andreyevich Orlov. “He is one of the few people other than Rasputin whom the Czar likes and trusts,” Churchill assures Walden. And “you were the Czar’s choice. It seems you are the only Englishman in whom he as any faith.”

The alliance, Churchill, Walden and Orlov hope, will protect Britain in the event the war-mongering German Kaiser decides to attack. Feliks (to use the name everybody else in the book calls him) hopes to prevent the alliance, which he fears will draw his Russian countrymen into a devastating war.

Follett had broken into the bestseller ranks a few years before The Man From St. Petersburg with two World War II-era thrillers, The Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca. His thoughts, he writes, then naturally turned to a novel set in World War I. So he decided to write a pre-World War I Edwardian-type thriller with plenty of romantic interest. I’ll admit a twinge of disappointment that young Prince Aleks and the Waldens’ daughter Charlotte didn’t fall for each other. But it was only a twinge, with Feliks emerging as the bad guy with a heart of gold, smoldering over what he believes was betrayal by the love of his life, Lydia. And as the plot twists toward its dramatic and bittersweet ending.

Some readers may wonder why anyone would think a secret alliance would protect either Great Britain or Russia. After all, weren’t all the major European nations of the early twentieth century already entangled in well-known alliances whose only real effect was to draw even more participants into the horrific struggle? For the rest of us, the stardust of the requited and unrequited love the Feliks and the entire Walden family leaves us reading happily if tearfully, to the end.

Follett writes in more detail about his works and life at

And for a view of how a bestselling thriller actually gets written, see Writing the Blockbuster Novel, by Follett’s agent and friend, Al Zuckerman, in which Follett is brave enough to reveal some of his early drafts of the book.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a March of thrillers and suspense with Ruth Rendell’s The Tree of Hands.)

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