There’s a Stranger in My Soul
Trotsky’s Run (James Burbage, volume 1)
By Richard Hoyt
1982’s Trotsky’s Run is the first of Richard Hoyt’s James Burbage thrillers.
Twenty years after fleeing to Moscow, Kim Philby wants to escape his dreary life in the Soviet Union. Returning to the United Kingdom is not in the cards. But what Philby knows (or can prove) may suffice to buy his way into the United States.
He claims that a Soviet mole is slated to become President of the United States.
Democratic Party nominee Derek Townes has an unassailable lock on the White House. Not only is he charismatic and well-liked, but he has the vocal approval of terminally-ill President Burack. Burack was an unremarkable but competent President:
he had sort of held the economy together and the country was not at war.
Terminal illness has transformed Burack into a hero in the public’s mind and Townes is the beneficiary at one remove of that adoration. All the poor Republicans  can do is gnash their teeth in frustration.
According to Kim Philby, Townes has been a Soviet mole for many decades. Philby will prove it, if only the CIA will snag him from the heart of the Soviet Union. That’s a job for spy James Burbage and his partner, steadfast desk-jockey turned extremely reluctant field agent Ara Schott. They are ordered to find some independent verification of Philby’s extraordinary claim.
Philby’s revelation is explosive enough. It’s what Philby does not know that’s the real bomb. A lifetime of stress as a Russian mole has taken its toll on poor Townes. Townes is in fact as mad as a March Hare. Townes believes he is Leon Trotsky reborn. Americans may vote for Derek Townes, but the man who will enter the Oval Office, the man who will have his finger on the Red Button, will be Leon Trotsky.
And Leon Trotsky has a score to settle with the heirs of Joseph Stalin.…
It’s been about thirty years since I read this. I had completely forgotten that the President before the Russian mole POTUS was named Burack. Of course, there are more differences between fiction and real history than similarities. Burack and Barack may sound similar, but Obama didn’t die in office, certainly did not endorse Trump, and of course there’s nothing covert about the ongoing Russian subversion of the White House. Still, Burack – Barack is a funny coincidence.
The James Burbage books include the following.
- Trotsky’s Run (1982)
- Cool Runnings (1984)
- Head of State (1985)
- The Dragon Portfolio (1986)
- Siege (1987)
- Marimba (1992)
- Red Card (1994)
- Japanese Game (1995)
- Tyger! Tyger! (1996)
1984’s Cool Runnings (no relation to the film) takes place in the Burbage setting, but stars a different protagonist, I should also add a caveat: it has been a long time since I read 1982’s The Manna Enzyme , in which protagonist Fidel Castro undertakes a journey of personal reinvention in an attempt to end famine forever. I don’t remember if it’s connected to the Burbage books at all. If it is, add it to the list.
The series as a whole is effectively an alternate history whose branch-point seems to have been some time prior to 1980: the book is set twenty years or so after Philby fled, in a year with an American Presidential election, so probably 1984, or possibly 1988. Burack is a one-term President. He either defeated Reagan in 1980, or perhaps Reagan won in 1980 but proved a mere one-termer. The Democratic lock on the White House seems odd for a book published in 1982. It’s not uncommon for thrillers to turn into alternate histories as the differences between their continuity and reality mount, but this series began as one. Despite that, I seem to recall the collapse of the Soviet Union was a bit of a road bump for the series, as the market for comic Cold-War hijinks declined.
A considerable part of the book involves Schott and Burbage’s efforts to verify Philby’s claims. Philby could be lying or he could be the Russian’s unwitting patsy in a plan to undermine American faith in its electoral system. Various events relating to the attempt to retrieve Philby raise all kinds of red flags. It’s only prudent to try to work out what’s really going on before acting.
There is another reason to spend as much time as they can investigating: it lets them defer a much more uncomfortable decision: what should they do if the man who will likely be President is a mole? Most of the options open to them have obvious drawbacks — although simply informing the Russians that their agent has snapped and is planning on using the full power of the Presidency to get even for 20 August 1940
at least has entertainment value. This version of the CIA does not even have a contingency plan for this eventuality, for fear of the consequences if such a plan was ever leaked.
Trotsky’s Run is towards the comic end of thrillerdom, without being overt parody. Pot-smoking Burbage is cynical, on the verge of burnout; he has been chosen by Schott not for his competence, but for his location: Burbage just happened to be the agent most convenient to Philby. But Burbage has his own agenda; he isn’t so much a patriot as he is a tireless hater of Russia and all things Soviet. Make American Great Again wouldn’t appeal to Burbage, but “let’s stick it to the Russians” definitely would.
Spy thrillers aren’t just travel porn and power fantasies. It’s pretty much required that everyone in them be completely obsessed with sex . That’s the case with this book, with the possible exception of the sixteen-year-old girl whose owner loans her to Burbage . This obsession has consequences for Schott that are either amusing or tragic, depending on how you feeling about inadvertently dating Catwoman and then being forced to continue canoodling with the enemy for the Good of America. Which could totally be the premise of a domestic comedy, if anyone needs a free premise.
We live in a golden age of ebook reprints, but if Richard Hoyt’s backlist has benefited from this development, I have managed to overlook the evidence. Hoyt’s website is here.
Please email corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com.
1: The tobacco industry is similarly frustrated. Burack’s openness about the connection between his emphysema and his smoking habit has done for smoking what JFK did for men’s hats.
2: Told in a way that caters to male gaze; the initial description of Townes’ wife Susan falls squarely into the “she breasted boobily to the stairs and titted downwards” school of prose
3: Which reminds me of yet another characteristic trope of 1970s and 1980s genre fiction I could live without: the obsession with fucking teenaged girls.