This nuanced novel is told from a woman’s point of view, representing a refreshing change from many a spy story.
Dame Stella Rimington is a respected former Director General of Britain’s MI5. The Moscow Sleepers is her tenth spy thriller featuring Liz Carlyle.
Given the author’s background and her publishing success it seems reasonable to expect The Moscow Sleepers to be an enthralling, spell-binding novel. That it is not comes as a surprise, particularly as other writers familiar with the world of espionage, such as John Bingham and John le Carré, have set such a high standard.
The reason The Moscow Sleepers fails as a thriller is not the because of the quality of its prose or its dialogue, but its lack of pace. Admittedly the plot is both original and credible and, as the title suggests, there is a worthy enemy in the efficient and unpopular Russian intelligence service. But the story unfolds very slowly, recounting the doings of many people, some of whom are introduced briefly, fulfil their role and then play no further part. These cameo appearances do little to enhance the reader’s experience although they probably mirror what happens in the real world. However, they contribute to the snail’s pace with which the story progresses.
There are human activities that give great satisfaction to many, but most certainly lack pace. Two examples that come to mind are crosswords and chess. Activities such as these tend to be compelling and hold the prolonged interest of their participants because they present intriguing puzzles which need to be solved. So perhaps the merit of The Moscow Sleepers is inherent in the puzzle it presents: why are the Russians doing what they’re doing? In that respect, the novel does well.
As you would expect in a series featuring Carlyle, she is the main player. Many other women have important key roles. The novel is nuanced from a woman’s point of view, which represents a refreshing change from many a spy story.
The sub-plot deals with Carlyle’s friend and co-worker, Peggy, and with Carlyle’s flowering relationship with a charming and successful widower. Recently widowed herself, Carlyle finds herself drawn to a man with a similar experience. ‘Try living again. It’s about time. Only I can’t do it on my own,’ Caelyle’s friend advises her. ‘Maybe you can’t either.’
If authenticity matters to you, and you are into puzzle- solving, The Moscow Sleepers may well be the book for you. But be warned: a page-turner it is not.
2 ½ stars: ★★☆
The Moscow Sleepers
By Stella Rimington
Paperback, 320pp, $29.99 RRP
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018
First published on