Cover image of "Lenin's Roller Coaster," a novel about the Russian Revolution

When the Russian Revolution erupted in 1917, it was by no means clear that Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks would come into power. Even after Lenin and his allies seized the reins of government in Moscow and Leningrad late in the year, the Communist Party’s control of the country was deeply in doubt. The party was indebted to a shaky coalition partner, the Left Revolutionary Socialists. Royalist forces, later dubbed the Whites, were forming armies led by former czarist officers and rapidly regaining territory. A Czech army of 50-100,000 men was operating in tandem with the Whites. And the Western Allies—British, French, and Americans—were invading the country from the north. Chaos reigned in Russia. This is the backdrop as David Downing‘s novel about the Russian Revolution gets underway.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

In the midst of this fluid and uncertain situation, Jack McColl, a Scot employed by the nascent Secret Service (MI6), enters the country on a mission to help undermine the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, his unlikely lover, Irish-American journalist Caitlin Handley, is in Russia reporting on the Revolution. Caitlin is a radical with friends among the Bolsheviks and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries. This is the premise on which Lenin’s Roller Coaster is based. It’s the third novel in David Downing’s series featuring Jack and Caitlin.

Lenin’s Roller Coaster (Jack McColl #3) by David Downing ★★★☆☆

Somehow, in an earlier book in the series, the two fell in love in the midst of a Secret Service operation in Ireland. There, they were on different sides, too. In fact, Jack was responsible for the death of Caitlin’s younger brother, Colm, who “had been hanged in the Tower of London two years earlier, after taking part in an Irish Republican plot to sabotage the transporting of British troops to France. McColl had caught and arrested him, albeit after offering to let him escape.” Improbably, Caitlin is well aware of Jack’s role in Colm’s death and fell in love with him, anyway.

Mansfield Cumming (the original “C” of MI6) has sent Jack to Russia with vague orders to connect with other agents already in place there. Cumming explains, “Our job is to shore up what’s left of the Eastern Front and prevent the Germans and Turks from exploiting the Russian collapse.”

Lenin’s Roller Coaster relates Jack and Caitlin’s experiences as they make their way to Moscow with painful slowness. Jack enters from the south, through Iran. Caitlin’s route takes her to Vladivostok on Russia’s easternmost coast, then westward on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Both trips take many weeks and expose the lovers to repeated danger. While Downing’s description of the Russian Revolution as it unfolded across the vast expanse of the country is fascinating from an historical standpoint, the slow progression of the plot is tedious. The book works well as historical fiction, not so well as a thriller.

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