The Reluctant Contact by Stephen Burke review

The Reluctant Contact is a mystery thriller set in 1977 on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, part of the Svalbard archipelago.

While Spitsbergen is Norwegian territory during the Cold War the Soviet Union had coal mining rights there and established a town called Pyramiden. Being above the Arctic Circle means for part of the winter the residents of Pyramiden have to endure 24 hours of darkness.

The chief engineer of Pyramiden is Yuri who has been quite happy to repeatedly renew his two year contract. There’s little for him back in Moscow and he looks forward to a new casual affair every year knowing his latest girlfriend probably won’t stay when her own contract is up. His only problem is his ambitious assistant engineer who has an eye on Yuri’s job.

When the assistant turns up dead in a mine shaft the local KGB officer immediately points suspicion at Yuri, as do the dead man’s Latvian friends who rough him up. Yuri starts to poke around trying to discover what he can. Was it an accident or murder?

However Yuri is soon distracted by a burgeoning and more serious than normal affair with a school teacher. Then his new lover Anya claims she is only on the island in order to defect and join her husband in the West but her contact has not approached her.

Just to add a further problem to the mix the local KGB man wants Yuri to inform on his new assistant, an English girl called Catherine who has arrived on the island in search of the perfect communist utopia.

Yuri finds this winter will prove to be more eventful than normal as he juggles his complications. What really happened to his assistant? Will Yuri be able to convince the Latvians he had nothing to do with it? Why has Anna’s contact not approached her yet? And does she even want to defect?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I thought I knew where it was going but there was a delicious twist I didn’t see coming. At times it put me in mind of Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star which is one of my favourite books. I’m partial to tales set in the Arctic or during the Cold War anyway but this one had me particularly engrossed. (I received my review copy on Friday and I had it finished ‪on Sunday evening‬, surely a new record for me.) I think this will prove to be one of my favourite books of 2017.

I received my review copy on Friday and I had it finished ‪on Sunday evening‬, surely a new record for me.

I’m now looking forward to Stephen Burke’s next novel.

The Reluctant Contact was published by Hodder in hardback on 7 September 2017.

Thanks to Hodder for the review copy.