About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Vladimir Putin in Spy Fiction and Libel (Part I)

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, is an important character in Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews. I was surprised to see the current leader of a country, especially one of the most powerful in the world, featured in a work of fiction. 

In my reading experience if an author wanted to write a book based on prominent living persons and events it would be done as a roman à clef where the identities would at least be disguised, sometimes very faintly. 

I remember reading Primary Colors by Anonymous (later identified as Joe Klein) which was published in 1996 and is the story of a Clinton presidential campaign.

If it was to be a book with a leading character based on a real person it would be done under a different name and at least some personal details different from the actual person.

A leading example in Canadian crime fiction is Gail Bowen’s debut crime mystery, Deadly Appearances, in which former Saskatchewan Premier, Andy Boychuk, is poisoned on the opening page. Boychuk is a barely disguised real life Roy Romanow who was a Saskatchewan Premier.

Virtually every work of fiction opens with a standard disclaimer. A common version is:

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

In both of the above circumstances, the standard fictional disclaimer is a fiction but it is still placed at the start of works of fiction that have "resemblances" that are clearly deliberate rather than coincidental.

Simon & Schuster could not use such a disclaimer with Palace of Treason. Putin is a named character who is the President of Russia in the book. It is the real life Putin who is the character.

The disclaimer to Palace of Treason reads:

This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people or real places are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

The second sentence asserts “real people” are “used fictitiously”.

I understand that phrasing when it is used with a character such as Paul De Gaulle in Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. In the book the assassin, known as the Jackal, prepares to assassinate De Gaulle at a public event in Paris. The real life De Gaulle is used as a character but the events involving him are clearly fictional though frighteningly plausible.

Most often authors look to the prominent deceased if they are going to use an actual person in a work of fiction.

Robert Harris has used real life deceased people in his books.

Fatherland, an alternative history mystery, set in 1964 is based on Germany winning WW II. Hitler is coming 75 in the book. He is no longer a dynamic leader.

In An Officer and a Spy Harris writes a fictional account of the Dreyfus Affair with the actual participants under their real names. His hero is the real life Georges Picquart who refused to let the French Army cover up the wrongful conviction of Dreyfus.

Recently the New York Times published a review of Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes in which Hitler becomes a time traveler to contemporary Berlin. The review speaks of the book filled with Hitler jokes. Whether humour about the Führer is a good idea is a question for another post.

As will be discussed in Part II of this post the Vladimir Putin of Palace of Treason is not merely a target as De Gaulle was in Day of the Jackal but is actually one of the villains.
Matthews, Jason - (2013) - Red Sparrow and Recipes and Menus in Spy Thrillers; (2015) - Palace of Treason 


  1. Bill, thanks for an engaging post on real people in spy fiction. I thought of "Day of the Jackal" by Frederick Forsyth even as I started reading your article. I have read a few espionage novels where real world leaders figure among the characters. As for Putin, I can only think of him in a villain's role, as in "Palace of Treason." I look forward to reading about him in Part II of this post.

    1. Prashant: Thanks for the comment. From the comments of yourself and Margot it is clear Day of the Jackal created a strong impression. It was a thriller I raced to complete.

  2. This is a really interesting post, Bill. Like Prashant, I thought of de Gaulle in De of the Jackal as I was reading your post,. I think it's always tricky to include a real person in a novel, even if that person has died. I've read historical novels that include real people; and even though those people are dead, the author still needs to acknowledge (at least in my opinion) what they were really like. It's that much more of a challenge when a person is alive. Not something I've tried in my own writing, and I'm looking forward to your thoughts about how it's handled in this book.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. I think the "pause" in your comment about using real people, dead or alive, reflects a healthy ambiguity from an author about whether to insert real people and how to handle them as characters. I will be addressing that issue as well, probably in a third post.

  3. Great post - and a really great post title, who wouldn't want to investigate that one...? I know what you mean, I'm always mystified as to when writers can use real people and when they can't - it's not at all clear what the 'rules' are, if any. That was very interesting about the Gail Bowen book - I enjoyed it very much without having any idea of its being any kind of roman a clef.

    1. Moira: Thanks for the kind words. I hope you can forgive me adjusting the title to add libel. As to the "rules" my next post discusses them. Gail effectively used her inspiration.