The outbreak of the 1919 Russian Revolution engages the considerable energies of a globe-trotting explorer-adventurer in the English author’s third historical novel (The Temple of Optimism, 2000, etc.).
Fleming (nephew of the late Sir Ian) has created a womanizer whom James Bond might envy. Compared with protagonist Charlie Doig, Tom Jones was a cub scout and the lustful aristocrats of Les Liaisons Dangereuses harmless upper-class twits. He’s a sexual athlete who might today be suspected of steroid use; a vainglorious priapist obsessed with the size and potency of his testicles; a romantic who confides, “There was an uncontainable head of pressure inside me…To get inside a woman and ram her to hell was all that could save me”: the kind of macho man whom Englishmen would pronounce a cad and feminists call out as a clueless sexist pig. Oh yes, the novel’s plot. Son of a Scots father and Russian mother, Charlie is schooled in England, then apprenticed to celebrated German naturalist Hartwig Goetz, with whom (in the book’s most interesting pages) he travels the far east collecting specimens for museums. Upon returning, following his father’s death, to Russia and his maternal family’s mansion the Pink House (near Smolensk), Charlie encounters a country in turmoil, and the opportunity to wed his gorgeous cousin Elizaveta (whose highborn fiancé Andrej has, conveniently, been assassinated). Then, as if we were lost in War and Peace, Reds and Whites begin slaughtering one another, and the billeting of two distressed soldiers at Pink House sows the seeds of the ultimate challenge to Charlie’s imperturbable will. The action sequences virtually sing with energy, and the novel’s blistering pace never lets up for a moment.
Fleming is indeed skilled, and the book is a pulse-pounding read. But, like Charlie’s innumerable paramours, you may hate yourself in the morning for having enjoyed it so much.