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Sergei Lebedev: Дебютант (Untraceable)

On 3 March 2018 Iulia Skripal flew to England from Russia, to join her father, Sergei, in his home in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal was a former Russian/British double agent who had been arrested in Russia, tried and convicted but released following a spy swap. That same day, two Russian agents arrived in England and went to Salisbury. They apparently looked around and returned to London. The next day they returned to Salisbury and put some Novichok nerve agent on the door knob of the Skripals’ house. That afternoon the Skripals were found unconscious on a bench in Salisbury town centre. They were taken to hospital and both eventually recovered. Three other people were affected. A police officer who went to the Skripals’ house was ill and recovered but had to give up his police career. A couple, Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, found what turned out to be the discarded flask containing the Novichok in a waste paper basket. They assumed it was perfume. She applied some to her neck. She later died. He was very ill but recovered.

The town of Salisbury was disrupted for weeks and a huge clean-up had to take place. The Russians denied all knowledge – indeed the two suspects gave an interview on Russian television saying they were ordinary tourists. They were identified as GRU agents. Novichok has been used since, specifically to attack Alexei Navalny, an opponent of Putin. This novel was inspired by (but not based on) the Skripal poisonings.

We start with Vyrin Mihalski. He has defected to the West. At the beginning of the novel he is concerned, as he has been summoned to do jury service. This should never have happened. His handler assures him the problem has been corrected but he wonders if his identity has been compromised. He is right to worry. When sitting having a a coffee at a café, he feels a sting at the back of his neck. He assumes it is a wasp but notices a car which is clearly not local driving away. Within four days he is dead.

We learn that the poison, called Neophyte in the English translation but Debutant in the original Russian (Novichok, Russian Новичо́к, is the Russian for newcomer), has been developed by Professor Kalitin. We follow his story. His father had worked for a mysterious man called Uncle Igor in a city known officially as Sovetsk-22 but known to people who lived there as The City. It is clearly a place where various scientific projects are carried out. We will later get a detailed history of the location. It had been a monastery and a prison camp before becoming a scientific research station.

Kalitin catches the eye of Uncle Igor, not least because he does not seem to have the inhibitions of his father and he is fast-tracked. He shines at chemistry. We follow his career in the lab.

We know early on that he is going to defect. He was still working on his Neophyte when the Soviet Union was falling apart. He was assured that work would continue but, eventually, it did not. As a result, he defected, hoping he could continue his work in the West. When the former enemies rejected his knowledge and services, Kalitin could only dream of the restoration of the USSR.

We are going to follow Kalatin’s story throughout the book. He eventually ends up in a small town (I am guessing Hallstatt from the description but it could be a fictitious town). He lives in a house on the outskirts of town, which suits him perfectly. He has a reinforced steel door, a rifle and his Neophyte locked in a safe. He is happy being solitary. Though he was married to Vera, it seems he married her because it would help his career to be married. They had no children and were not happy. Indeed, she was an informer. She died in tragic circumstances. He has no friends though seems to be on good terms with the local priest

Kalitin had developed Neophyte with a lot of trial and error and is very proud of it. It is lethal and, as the English title tells us, untraceable. The only slight problem is delivery, as anyone handling it, for example by putting it on a door knob, is likely to die as well. He is, in fact, obsessed with it and is determined that his one creation should continue. He would much prefer that it were used by a major power like Russia/USSR but, failing that, any power would do. He is very disappointed that, when he defects, they do not seem to be keen on his creation. By the end of the book, he is considering taking it elsewhere.

However, we have another key character. He is Lieutenant-Colonel Shershnev. He works for the Russian secret service – the GRU or similar. We follow his career which essentially has taken place since the fall of the Soviet Union. He had been active in Chechnya, for example. He follows the rules and his view is that if his bosses tell him it must be done, then it must be done, whatever it is. He has two regrets we know about. One involved torturing a boy to death, though it it is possible that, contrary to what he thought, the boy did not die. The second involves a paint ball game with his son and his son’s friends for the son’s birthday. He is determined to let his son kill him but, when it comes down to it, he cannot resist showing his superior skills and kills his son.

His key role in this story is that he and a technician, Grebenyuk, are sent to kill Kalitin. We go backwards and forwards, following Kalitin and his story, while following the journey of Shershnev and Grebenyuk. Shershnev is not happy with the plan but goes along with it. However, lots of small things go wrong en route. Shershnev thinks they are spied on. For example, he thinks he sees the boy he tortured and is suspicious of virtually everyone. For his part, Grebenyuk thinks that all the small things going wrong means that the assignment is cursed and they should abandon it.

Lebedev has clearly got into the psychology of both the main characters, Kalitin with his obsession with his creation and overwhelming desire to make sure it is used and used effectively and Shershnev with his devotion to the system and determination to carry out his orders, whatever the cost. How accurate it is, we cannot, of course know. Are Shershnev and Grebenyuk anything like Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, the two Salisbury assassins? We do not know and I am sure that Lebedev does not but he doubtless determined that both the real and fictitious agents were of a type, found in Russia and elsewhere. Kalitin comes close to the mad scientist stereotype, beloved of Hollywood, with his obsession with his creation. However, at the same time, he does generally seem to be more rational than the mad scientist trope. Mad scientist or rational killer, he is still a fascinating character.

Having very much enjoyed watching the excellent BBC production of The Salisbury Poisonings (this link may not work outside the UK), I did enjoy this book, given that it went into the psychology of both the creator and the user of Neophyte, giving a very different perspective from the BBC film.

Publishing history

First published in 2020 by Corpus
First published in English in 2021 by New Vessel Press
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis