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Kyiv

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An explosive tale

Here is another fine novel in Graham Hurley’s Spoils of War series. These novels can all be read as standalone, but if you are able, you should read this one before Last Flight to Stalingrad, because it is in the latter that some of the protagonists of Kyiv meet their fate.

The story is set in 1941 during the German advance into the Soviet Union. The capture of Ukrainian Kyiv gives the Germans an opportunity to treat the conquered population with restraint, until the Soviets launch a very nasty surprise on the occupying force.

Meanwhile in Britain there is another more secret conflict taking place, one between MI5 and MI6, one featuring the known Russian spy, Kim Philby, and the fictional Tam Moncrieff, who despite his abilities is fooled and thwarted at every turn by Philby. Moncrieff’s lover, Bella Menzies, has mysteriously been sent to Russia, has found herself in Kyiv, betrayed by the Russian secret service, hunted by the evil SS commander Kalb, and by the relatively decent intelligence officer, Strauss.

This is a headlong, violent and brutal tale, but intelligent and full of twists and turns. It features one of the worst Nazi atrocities of the war, the massacre of the Jews of Kyiv. There are some horrific scenes, and the ending is downbeat, but as a feat of historical imagination and drama it is a tour de force. There are those who compare Hurley with Philip Kerr and John Lawton. I think he may be better than both.
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This is the type of book which grabs the reader's attention from the very early chapters.  I was hooked on the book from chapter 2 and was unable to put the book down...
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Graham Hurley has woven a clever tale here, incorporating real events associated with the Soviet delayed action bombs left behind when the Germans occupied Kyiv (Kiev) after their invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. A neat trick is also to include references to a potential spy within British Intelligence, who we now know to be one of the infamous Cambridge Spy Ring. Onto this skeleton Hurley builds a story of love, betrayal, intrigue, adventure and the horror of the Babi Yar massacres. As such the narrative has to work hard to sustain these individually weighty themes. The story is told through the experiences of two lead characters, intimately connected yet always far apart in the novel. The author’s story telling ability is well developed and the intensity of the respective experiences of the lead characters is well captured. Less successful is the occasional disjointed or almost staccato flavour of the writing, which may be something to do with the difficulty of sustaining so many true life elements. Also somewhat  jarring for this reader, at least, was the unnecessary detail of measures used to intimidate and terrify a female prisoner. Despite these minor reservations this was a book that was devoured in two sessions. Recommended..
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I really enjoyed Last Flight to Stalingrad, the first book in Graham Hurley’s Spoils of War series. Although part of the same series, Kyiv can definitely be read as a standalone.

The setting is the city we today know as Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and once again the author blends historical fact and fiction into the storyline. For example, Kim Philby, who it’s clear knows how to bowl a googly, makes an early appearance and Guy Burgess turns up soon afterwards. However, the two main characters, Isobel (Bella) Menzies and Tam Moncrieff are fictional.

In alternating chapters, the book charts events over the course of several weeks starting in September 1941. We follow Bella as she travels to Kiev alongside Ilya Glivenko (known as The Pianist) who is overseeing the transport of a mysterious cargo to that city from Britain. And we witness the attempts by Bella’s lover, intelligence officer Tam, to unearth more information about Bella. In the process, he uncovers evidence, in true John le Carré style, about possible moles at the heart of the British intelligence operation.

With the benefit of hindsight, the reader won’t find it hard to identify likely individuals, but for Tam it means following his instincts. There’s a terrific scene that put me in mind of the exploits of Richard Hannay, the hero of John Buchan’s adventure novels, in which Tam attempts to surreptitiously follow a man he suspects may be a traitor through the streets of London. ‘Moncrieff had spent many years stalking deer in the mountains… the subtle arts of staying upwind, of moving carefully from cover to cover, of closing on the prey’. Despite this experience, Tam finds himself outfoxed and, it becomes apparent, in danger.  Indeed, as Bella observes at one point, “The world is always more complicated than you think”.

For Bella, her time in Kyiv is one of new experiences including being hustled from one safe place to another in order to escape the attentions of Stalin’s secret police, and adopting a new identity courtesy of the enigmatic Larissa. Unfortunately, once Russian forces quit the city and are replaced by a German army of occupation, Bella experiences first-hand what the SS are capable of although, to provide balance, the author demonstrates that not every German supported the extreme acts of violence perpetrated by the Nazi regime. There is one scene in particular that, as a woman, I found hard to read and another that is shocking because of its sheer scale. It’s as Yuri, one of Bella’s Ukranian contacts, had warned: “…everything will change. Everything. Here. In the city. Everywhere. We love the Russians going, but we should be careful what we wish for.”

It’s clear the depth of research that has gone into the book, whether that’s recreating the club-like atmosphere of MI5’s Central Registry in St. Albans, the discomfort of an overnight flight aboard a Halifax, or the streets of the besieged Kyiv as German bombs rain down.

In Kyiv, the author has created an unflinching picture of the chaos, confusion and horror of war, and its long legacy – physical, emotional and psychological – for those who live through it.
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Graham Hurley writes captivating tales that satisfy fans of historical fiction and thrillers alike and in his latest novel, Kyiv, he has penned a gripping, atmospheric and adrenaline-fueled page-turner sure to keep readers on the edge of their seats.

Operation Barbarossa was launched on Sunday 22nd June 1941 when three and a half million troops began their mission in the Soviet Union, aimed at attacking the Caucuses and the oil fields beyond. There was just one impediment standing in their way: the city of Kyiv. However, the troops were not going to let anyone stand in their way and within six weeks, the city was under siege and under constant attack. Soviet Commissar Nikita Khrushchev was one of the senior Soviet officials coordinating the defence. With the danger being constant and the stakes having never been higher. Nikita does not trust anyone easily – especially in these delicate and fragile times – other than a select group of people he works with constantly, including British defector Bella Menzies.

Formerly of MI5, Bella now works with the Soviet police. Her job is tough, challenging and dangerous yet Bella will not be easily cowed. With Kyiv’s fall imminent, the Soviets are planning a bloody war of terror that will have serious repercussions – even for the citizens themselves. As Bella finds herself caught and hunted by both the Russians and the Germans, can she possibly find a way to stay alive when all the odds are stacked against her?

Bella needs to watch her back because one false move and she could lose everything – including her life.

Graham Hurley is a master at heightening the tension and suspense and in Kyiv, he has penned a vivid historical novel where readers will find themselves immersed in a world of espionage, chicanery, deception and skullduggery.

A deftly plotted and immensely absorbing thriller, Graham Hurley’s Kyiv will keep readers engrossed and entertained till the very last page.
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Graham Hurley is, for me, one of the outstanding crime writers of this generation. His Joe Faraday series was simply wonderful, and the Jimmy Suttle spin-off books were just as good. His Enora Andresson series is very different, but equally compelling. It is only relatively recently, though, that I became aware of Hurley's fascination with military history, and so I jumped at the chance to read and review Kyiv. We know the city as Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and in this novel Hurley starts with the fateful day, 22nd June 1941 when Adolf Hitler, desperate for Ukraine's agricultural riches, but with an eye on the oil fields of the Caucuses beyond, launched Operation Barbarossa.

Knowing, as we do now, that the invasion of Russia was a disastrous strategic mistake which eventually brought the downfall of the Third Reich, shouldn't diminish our appreciation of this book. In some ways, we are in John Lawton and Philip Kerr territory here, with the complex mixture of real life characters and fictional creations. The novel focuses on two (fictional) people, Isobel 'Bella' Menzies and Tam Moncrieff. Both work for British intelligence. Moncrieff is loyal to Britain, but Bella's allegiance is more ambiguous. She works for both Russia and Britain, and both states seem to be well aware of this. Naturally, before the launch of  Barbarossa, Stalin was - on paper, at least - an ally of Hitler, so what now?

Bella is sent on a mysterious mission to Moscow but, with the fearsome NKVD (Narodny Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs) on her case, she diverts to Kyiv, with the German Army Group Centre just days away from capturing the city. Soon, the shattered remains of the Red Army (and party officials like Nikita Kruschev) are scrambling eastwards over the River Dnieper and the bemused Ukranians, most of them no fans of the departing Soviets, look on as the Germans arrive and start what seems to be a fairly peaceful Nazification of Kyiv. This soon changes, however. Pro-Soviet agents have planted huge bombs in many of the city's major buildings, and in particular those they knew that the new German administration would appropriate as accommodation for their army of bureaucrats. These bombs are detonated, one by one, by radio signal, and all hell breaks loose.

Back in Britain, Tam Moncrieff has been made a fool of by fellow intelligence officer Kim Philby, and is then abducted and drugged. When he finally finds himself free, much of his memory has gone. Someone has used him to send a mocking message to the British intelligence agencies, but who?

Bella, meanwhile has met Larissa, a Ukranian journalist, and they have become lovers. As the SS attempt to end the bombings Bella falls foul of sadistic Standartenführer Kalb, but with the help of Wilhelm Strauss, a sympathetic Abwehr officer she knew from her days in Berlin before the war, she and Larissa play a dangerous cat and mouse game with Kalb.

Hurley depicts Strauss as a "good German' in a similar way that Philip Kerr treated Bernie Gunther, but for all his disgust at the tactics of the SS, Strauss is unable to prevent one of the most horrific and bestial acts of the war being visited on the Jews of Kyiv.

William Tecumseh Sherman famously stated, "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all Hell." Graham Hurley paints as hellish a picture of war as you could wish to read, and spares neither the Germans or the Soviets as he describes their predilection for barbarity. Onto this grim background, he paints a haunting picture of human love and suffering. Kyiv is published by Head of Zeus and is out on 8th July.
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Graham Hurley is such a prolific author and manages to maintain such a high standard too. 

This is another in his “Spoils of War” series this time dealing with Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia and what happened in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine after it was captured. 

The descriptions of life under occupation are beautifully done and the tension abounds as nobody is quite sure who is working for whom as the Russians plan to sabotage and blow up the city now in Nazi hands. 

There is much derring do with M15 and M16 heavily involved as well as the deceptive Kim Philby. 

This was a treat to read.
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