Cover Image: Untraceable


Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

A much lauded Russian author, Sergei Lebedev was unknown to me until recently, but if his fifth novel, "Untraceable," is any guide, he will only grow in stature. Dubbed a political thriller, Untraceable is a riveting examination of state and private morality, anchored in hot-off-the-press news. An ex-Soviet super-chemist in charge of developing ultra toxic bioweapons at an institution called The Island, Professor Kailitin flees the collapsed empire and disappears under a new identity. Now, when another defector is mysteriously killed by a toxin that seems to leave no trace, Kailitin is called to help. But that arouses interest from Putin's Russia, and two seasoned operatives depart to bring Kailitin down, using his own supreme nerve agent. No blockbuster, Untraceable is artfully structured as a thriller of predators chasing prey, but the author is far more interested in all his characters' past and present emotional and ethical landscapes. Engrossingly atmospheric, the alternating chapters of Untraceable reminded me of James Sallis's pithy, noir novels, creating in the reader not only visceral excitement but also lingering disquiet about our inner lives. Superb.
Was this review helpful?
Based on the trend for Russia to poison its enemies, Untraceable follows a scientist who developed an untraceable poison as he flees the country he used to serve. It's a novel but feels like non-fiction, and that first scene is really great, and pulls you right in to the story. It probably didn't hurt that we were watching Spycraft at the same time!
Was this review helpful?
“This place does not exist, understand? That’s why I could bring you here”

An untraceable poison is a modern dictator’s dream, the perfect weapon that allows to assassinate dissenters and defectors and indulge in the most lawless acts while maintaining a respectable façade in the eyes of the international community. 

At the beginning of Untraceable, a Russian defector is killed by a poison of this kind. The Russian scientist who invented it is also a defector: when funding for biochemical weapons was frozen due to talks of disarmament, he had fled abroad in search of a place where he could “restore his arsenal and continue his interrupted research”. Now, with a sting of nostalgia, he understands that experimentation has resumed in Russia and that his creature is being used to eliminate political enemies. Could he be one of them? On his traces is Shershnev, a former Chechnya military operative with a curriculum of war crimes under his belt. 

The two are “workers of hell” whose lives intersect in a tense, urgent literary thriller: a novel that fearlessly interrogates contemporary Russian history by drawing inspiration from recent cases of political poisoning happening in plain sight, while also seeking the roots of the issue in a more distant past.  More widely, Untraceable explores the nature of modern regimes, the dangerous liaison between science and power and what this entails in terms of biopower and biopolitics. 

Indeed, as it takes us through a surreal, phantasmagorical landscape made up of undocumented centres of power and secret labs undocumented resembling a “matryoshka doll, consisting of layers of increased secrecy”, the novel turns out to be a nuanced exploration of the mindset, historical circumstances and political structures that make modern regimes possible. An excellent, thought-provoking work written with an eye to the great Russian novel, which typically interrogates questions such as power, tyranny and the nature of evil. 

I am grateful to NetGalley and the publisher for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Was this review helpful?
This is a book of many parts and many tonalities, which might put some readers off, but which really appealed to me. It is a thoughtful analysis of why a scientist would choose to collaborate with an evil regime, how science can be subverted, and how ideals go out the window. It is also a historical picture of the mess and lack of certainties after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is of course also a spy thriller, with a sinister opening and a mounting sense of dread. Yet, in certain parts, when the would-be assassins are embarking on a road-trip to find the rogue scientist, it becomes quite comical, even farcical. All in all, a really enjoyable read.
Was this review helpful?
A brave and topical book written by one of Russia's most promising young authors. It isa beautifully written and well plotted expose of Russia'suse of assassination and lethal poisons against its main rivals.

It is an exciting thriller festering assassinations and tradecraft but also questions the morals of the use of such weapons.

Original and well worth reading.
Was this review helpful?
"Untraceable" by Sergei Lebedev is a chilling insight into the dark underworld of chemical poisoning, defection and assassinations by state-sponsored bodies. 

The release of this fictional account of events could not be more timely with all that is currently happening to Alexey Navalny.

I was engrossed in the story, the characters and the single-minded determination by government departments to develop an untraceable poison with little regard for community or environment. 

The timeline of events being described was at times unclear to me and whilst I was did not get the ending I expected this is overall this an excellent read.
Was this review helpful?
This is a book which will confront you as much as entertain you.  It’s a great story full of details which draw you further and further in.  The fine line which science walks ethically is brought to bear and it adds an interesting aspect to the plot.  The writing style is really wonderful, painting a picture without getting carried away with overly descriptive language.  I felt faintly troubled by the end of it but can’t wait to read more by this very talented author.
Was this review helpful?
For many years, Kalitin has lived alone on the hill, in the house at the end of the road, isolated from his neighbours. He kept for himself, guarded the secrets of his former life, knowing that one day, they would catch up with him. Now, with the cancer in his body, there is not much time left anyway. His enemies are already on their way, two men, the ordinary set-up, to find and kill him. Agents who turn into angels of death because Kalitin not only knows too much, but because he was the man to develop Neophyte, a highly lethal substance which leaves no trace when applied, perfect to get rid of obnoxious people who know too much or who have fled the secure boundaries of their former home country. Such a behaviour against the code of honour is something Shershnev cannot accept. He has always been hard, hard against himself, hard against his son, hard against everybody. Two men who after a long life in the service of a country which does not exist anymore, have to fight their last battle.

“Kalitin knew that his inventions did not simply create specific weapons of death poured into ampoules. He also produced fear.”

Sergei Lebedev’s novel tells the story of two men who have seen everything in life and for whom life and death have been just states which a person can be in but nothing spiritual. Now, close to the end of their lives, they not only look back but also start to question what they have seen and done. “Untraceable” also tells the story of a lethal weapon we have heard of in the news more than once in the last couple of years. The time of shooting double agents, dissidents, whistle blowers and the like are gone, the strategies and means have become much more sophisticated, but one thing has remained the same: the human factor.

“In that world, most people did not yet see the dark side of science, its evil twin.”

For Kalitin, science, the discoveries and expansion of his knowledge about how nature works have always been paramount. However, he has come to understand that the leaders of the URRS for whom he worked had a different understanding and that, first and foremost, the individual scientist wasn’t worth much. He was only an obedient soldier on duty for the state. Surely, they gave him the opportunity to work in his lab, but at the end of his life, he also sees the price this came with and he can see the bigger picture. He wasn’t interested in politics, he has always seen himself just as a scientist, but eventually, he has to acknowledge that it isn’t so simple and that he cannot put the blame only on the others.

Shershnev, too, ruminates about his life which he has fully dedicated to the long gone state. He is one of the last still on duty who have lived in the USSR and who still, after all those decades, adheres to the old values. He has to admit having made mistakes. Big mistakes which haunt him now. Yet, he follows the assigned mission stubbornly, too weak to make a courageous decision himself.

The beginning was a bit slow, I didn’t get the connection between the different characters and chapter immediately. However, as soon as the main conflict was laid out, the novel was not only suspenseful but also morally challenging since it raises the big issue of science and the responsibility of the scientists. Additionally, it is no question that the former USSR was a rogue regime, yet, no system is flawless and to what extent each civil servant, soldier or simple citizen complies with given values and rules has to be answered individually. 

A thrilling political thriller which also offers a lot of food for thought.
Was this review helpful?
Not sure how to categorize this stark and unsettling book, or whether it needs to be.  It definitely made me think, though not in a particularly positive way.  Aspects were inhuman, others human.

However, the premise is interesting (Russian agents, assassinations, undetected gas, experiments...).  Kalitin is a chemist, former Russian agent, develops a deadly undetectable gaseous poison and hides some of it.  After his wife and others die, he grows concerned and moves to the West but is tracked by Lt. Shershnev who is intent upon using the gas on him.  Meanwhile, we see glimpses of the past in both men's lives, including their childhoods.  

This book felt like a disturbing dystopia written in brief words and choppy minimalist sentences, not my style.  However, it was effective in emphasizing the points.  It was not my cup of tea...a departure from what I enjoy...but gave it a chance.  I feel it didn't deliver on its potential but others may disagree and may enjoy it more.  

My sincere thank you to New Vessel Press and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Was this review helpful?
Keeps the action pulsing with enough intrigue to make it hard to turn the virtual pages fast enough.  Thoroughly fleshed-out characters you tend to either like or dislike with enthusiasm.  A great bedtime read that'll keep you engaged till the very end.  Highly recommended!

*This book was provided free of charge in exchange for my honest review.  My thanks to the author, publisher and NetGalley for allowing me to participate in this program.*
Was this review helpful?