The Red House
(Michael Joseph, 1972)
In the early days of 1976, I bought two hardback novels from a bargain bookshop in London. One was Bed of Flowers by Auberon Waugh and the other was The Red House. They are very different novels by very different authors (it is hard, for example, to imagine Waugh posing for an author photo in the manner of Lambert, with polo neck sweater, sports coat, craggy good looks, and a panatela smouldering in his left hand).
But they shared three features. Both were published in the same year, both were set in the late Sixties and both treated the time in which they were set as an historic period that, from the perspective of 1972, was well and truly over.
Waugh’s offering is reviewed by Alwyn Turner here. So what is Lambert’s novel about?
The central character is Vladimir Zhukov, new appointed second secretary to the Soviet embassy in Washington. The year is 1968 which, Lambert notes before the narrative begins, ‘embraced the assassinations of a black and a white leader [Dr King and Robert Kennedy], a space shot, the election of a new American president [Richard Nixon], race riots of unprecedented fury, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. A savage, tragic, momentous year.’
Zhukov, I think it is fair to say, is a good man. Wife Valentina is a true believer in Soviet Communism, daughter Natasha is rather more interested in sex, and Zhukov walks an uneasy line between admiring the sheer abundance of America’s consumer society and loyalty to the Socialist Motherland:
He bought a comb and a tube of pink transparent toothpaste which Natasha might prefer to her tin of powder. So hard to spend and so easy to pay: no abacus, no hour-long queues, no trips from counter to cashier and back.
But then, munching a hotdog, he pulls himself together:
Aren’t Muscovites the greatest eaters in the world? Stuffing themselves with creamy borsch, fat meats, black bread, cucumbers, potatoes, the gurievskaya kasha that Valentina cooked so well, the salted pig fat on thick bread that peasants still ate, the finest and creamiest ice-cream in the world. I shouldn’t feel shame at eating these synthetic snacks.
His boss, the ambassador, declares: ‘“You are an original man, Comrade Zhukov. A dangerous thing to be a few years ago. But now many things have changed.”’
In his private thoughts, Zhukov is perhaps too original: ‘Wasn’t Russia doing the same as America? Grabbing millions of roubles for armaments and the race into space while her people stood in line for shabby overcoats, steel teeth, sprouting potatoes and shoes like polished cardboard.’
The fate of Washington’s black rioters in the USSR, he notes, would have been rather different from the treatment meted out by the US authorities: ‘The rebels would have been chopping wood and sinking mines in the lost camps of Siberia. (He was surprised that he permitted such thoughts.)’
But in public he remains loyal. At a British diplomatic event, he responds to criticism of the Soviet Union thus:
‘America is in fact a dictatorship. Your President has total power, unlike the leaders of the Soviet Union … the President is also your Commander-in-Chief. Also he is in charge of foreign affairs assisted by your Secretary of State. No such overwhelming powers are held by our leaders.’
Later, he explains to a sympathetic listener: ‘“They seem to think that because I am a Russian they can criticise me in any way they like. They wouldn’t dream of attacking a Brazilian or an Italian in that way.”’
Henceforth, we are into spoiler territory, so be warned…
Zhukov is despatched to New York for the meeting of the UN Security Council called to discuss Russia’s invasion of rebellious Czechoslovakia. It is a turning point, as he realises the pretext for the Soviet action is a lie: ‘If only the Russian delegate could produce some evidence of any request for help [from the Czechs]. If he failed then Soviet integrity was humiliated.’
He hits the bars of New York and gets drunk. Henceforth his career is on the down escalator, a descent greatly accelerated when Natasha falls in love with Charlie Hardin (and he with her), not only an American but an intelligence official. She defects to be with him. Meanwhile, Zhukov discovers that his wife has, for years, been filing reports on him to the powers that be: ‘“It was for your own good, Vladimir. For the good of…of everything. Do you understand?”’
The tale ends with Vladimir and Valentina being recalled home. It is sobering to think that it will be at least seventeen years before they will be reunited with their daughter, and that is to assume that Mikhail Gorbachev gives such a re-union his top priority on taking over in 1985. More likely, they would have had to await the collapse of the Soviet bloc 21 years in the future.
Meanwhile, a less abundant future for the West beckons as the Sixties draw to a close: ‘[O]n Sunday afternoons, many an overweight car polisher who had spotted the first two letters of RECESSION edging into the headlines wondered how many more working Mondays there would be.’
But perhaps the funniest passage in the book comes early on, when Zhukov, bewildered by the many and varied goods on offer in an American supermarket, has just one item in his trolley when he runs into a KGB man from the embassy:
He rested there, drunk with choice, as Nicolai Grigorenko hove past, his basket-on-wheels stacked high with decadence.
‘Greetings, comrade,’ Zhukov said, sanctimonious about his single tube of sausage.
Grigorenko turned as quickly as a man going for a gun. Alarm, suspicion, menace; then a blush of guilt on his drooping face. But he attacked just the same. ‘What are you doing here, Comrade Zhukov?’
‘Observing the fleshpots of Capitalist degeneracy. And you, comrade?’
The Growler faltered. ‘Just doing a little shopping for one of the counsellors.’ Inspiration assembled slowly. ‘He’s giving a party for some French diplomats. You know how they like to eat,’ he added hopefully.
‘I do indeed, comrade.’ He appraised Grigorenko’s basket of loot. ‘How will the counsellor serve aerosol shaving cream?’
‘That is for the counsellor himself. It is his only weakness.’
‘If American shaving cream is his only weakness then he is a very fortunate man.’
Derek Lambert (1929-2001) fulfilled his National Service with the RAF, after which he became a journalist, working on local papers in Devon, Norfolk and Yorkshire, before joining the Daily Mirror. His first overseas assignment of many was the Suez crisis in 1956 and, as a foreign correspondent for the Daily Express, he later worked in both Moscow and Washington.
His early work – both fiction and non-fiction – drew on his own experiences. His first book, The Sheltered Days (1965), was an account of his wartime childhood that impressed reviewers, none more so than Susan Hill (later of The Woman in Black) who wrote that it ‘may well become a minor classic’. Similarly, his debut novel, Angels in the Snow (1969), written during his time in Russia, concerned the British community in Moscow, and The Kites of War (1969) was set in Tibet, during the 1962 Sino-Indian War, on which Lambert had reported.
Later writing ventured further afield. The Yermakov Transfer (1974) has Jewish guerrillas in conflict with the KGB on the Trans-Siberian railway; Touch the Lion’s Paw (1975, filmed as Rough Cut) is about a £15-million diamond heist; while Grand Slam (1971) centres on professional tennis, and Triad (1987) on Hong Kong gangsters.
There was also a series of historical crime stories about a nineteenth-century detective, published under the name Richard Falkirk. This is HRF Keating’s summary of one of them: ‘Bow Street Runner tackles threat to Bank of England manfully. Falkirk tackles fine wealth of salty period detail almost as successfully.’
According to the obituary in the Daily Telegraph, ‘Lambert made no claims for his books, which he often wrote in five weeks, simply dismissing them as pot-boilers’. Sounds good.