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