Cover image of "Red London," a novel about Russian oligarchs in London

Americans are sometimes surprised to learn just how many Russian oligarchs have gravitated to the UK. A March 2022 article in The New Yorker is entitled, “How Putin’s Oligarchs Bought London,” and it’s not too wide off the mark. As a local London newspaper noted the same month, “Transparency International recently estimated that more than £1.5 billion worth of UK property was bought by Russians accused of corruption or with links to the Kremlin between 2016 and 2021. The vast majority of these homes were in London with £428 million in Westminster, £283 million in Kensington and Chelsea and £165 million in Camden.” Several of those homes, mansions one and all, are located on The Bishops Avenue in London, known as Billionaires’ Row. Which is where former CIA officer Alma Katsu stages most of the action in her fast-moving new spy thriller about Russian oligarchs in London, Red London.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Gun-toting thugs invade Mikhail Rotenberg’s mansion

Lyndsey Duncan, heroine of Katsu’s acclaimed earlier novel, Red Widow, moved to London two weeks ago to serve as the CIA’s handler for a high-level Russian intelligence officer. But no sooner has she begun making contact with him than the agency sends her to MI6 headquarters at Vauxhall Cross. Heavily armed assailants have attacked the home of Mikhail Rotenberg. He’s one of Russia’s wealthiest men and certainly the wealthiest of the oligarchs in London. And nobody except for the police believes it’s the work of robbers.

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Something big is up, and both MI6 and CIA want to know who’s behind the attack. It’s especially urgent, since Viktor Kosygin has ousted Vladimir Putin and now presides in the Kremlin. And they know little about Kosygin. But for Lyndsey’s superiors the way forward is clear: send her undercover on Billionaires’ Row to befriend Rotenberg’s young English trophy wife, Emily, and attempt to “turn” her. Unfortunately, Lyndsey is perfect for the job, and she’s too junior to refuse. Besides, the man in charge of the operation at MI6 is none other than Davis Ranford, with whom Lyndsey had a passionate affair in Beirut that earned her a suspension for a time at the CIA. And Davis seems to want to pick up where they left off.

Red London (Red Widow #2) by Alma Katsu (2023) 352 pages ★★★★★

Aerial view of London's Billionaires' Row, where much of the action takes place in this novel about Russian oligarchs in London
Annotated aerial view of London’s “Billionaires’ Row,” where the fictional Mikhail Rotenberg lives along with other Russian oligarchs and assorted absentee owners. Image: Insider

Life behind the walls of an oligarch’s mansion

With little effort, Lyndsey insinuates herself into Emily Rotenberg’s lonely life. After a time, Emily invites her to move into the mansion with her. And Lyndsey, operating undercover as “Lynn Prescott,” a Philadelphia heiress, begins to bond with the young woman. But Emily seems to know little or nothing about her notorious husband’s activities. And Mikhail himself is a shadowy presence, slipping in and out of the house surrounded by his security detail and holing up in his private office in another wing of the house.

But complications soon ensue. A former CIA officer whom Lyndsey knew at “the Farm” turns up befriending Emily, too. Dani Childs now works for a London-based private intelligence agency with a mixed reputation—and she’s there to locate Rotenberg’s financial records so her client can track down where he’s stashed his money. Which is of course Lyndsey’s objective as well. And Dani, who is more willing than Lyndsey to cut legal corners, is soon close to finding the records. Which raises a crucial question: who is her client?

Meanwhile, Mikhail sends Emily off on “playdates” with their two young children to the homes of other Russian oligarchs living in London. He’s determined to raise them as Russians—and to controll Emily’s life. But what Mikhail doesn’t count on is that one of the wives explains to her what’s really going on. And that’s far more serious than a home invasion gone wrong.

About the author

Alma Katsu, author of this novel about Russian oligarchs in London
Alma Katsu. Image: Mystery and Suspense Magazine

Alma Katsu‘s bio on her author website speaks of “her 30+ year career in intelligence. As an intelligence officer, Ms. Katsu worked at several federal agencies as a senior analyst where she advised policymakers and military commanders on issues of national security. The last third of her government career was spent in emerging technologies and technology forecasting. She was also a senior technology policy analyst for the RAND Corporation and continues as an independent consultant and technology futurist, advising clients in government and private industry.”

Katsu was born in Fairbanks, Alaska in 1959, the daughter of an American-born father and a Japanese-born mother. She holds a BA in literature and writing from Brandeis University and an MA in Fiction from Johns Hopkins University.  

Red London is the sequel to her first spy novel, Red Widow, which won widespread acclaim, including nominations for numerous literary awards. All told, she has written six novels to date. (The other four are fantasy.) Katsu now lives in the mountains of West Virginia with her husband, a musician, and their two dogs.

This is one of The 21 best books of 2023.

You’ll find my review of the author’s first spy novel, Red Widow, at A poisoned CIA asset, and a hunt for a CIA mole.

This is one of the Good books about billionaires.

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