Journey to an unnamed mountainous country in central Europe at the end of the Great War. Enter Citizen Orlov, a simple fishmonger and an honest, upright citizen, who answers a phone call meant for a secret agent and stumbles into a hidden world of espionage and secrecy.
Recruited by the Ministry of Security, he is sent on assignment to safeguard the king.
But Orlov soon discovers that his ministry handler, the alluring femme fatale Agent Zelle, is planning not to protect the king but to assassinate him. Caught in a web of plot and counterplot, confusing loyalties, and explosive betrayals, Orlov finds himself on trial for murder. Given the opportunity to clear his name, he finds that the lives of his friends, mother, and fellow citizens hang in the balance.
“A stunning debut! A page turning, down-the-rabbit-hole delight, told with equal measure of wit and suspense. A timeless classic for our current moment; a paranoid and comic thriller with a surprise on every page.” —Don Scardino, Producer/Director, 30 Rock, New Amsterdam
“A triumph—and an answer to that age-old question of what would have happened had Gogol, Kafka and G. K. Chesterton collaborated on a thriller. A timeless work which will, I fear, be forever timely.” —Dixe Wills, author of Places to Hide and New World Order
Jonathan Payne recently spent some time with The Big Thrill discussing his latest thriller, CITIZEN ORLOV.
Can you pinpoint a moment or incident that sparked the idea for this book?
My final assignment for the British government was to spend a year in charge of security at the British embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Years later, after moving to the US, I caught COVID-19 and had a vivid fever dream that I had been summoned by my former employer to undertake a dangerous overseas assignment where someone was trying to kill me. That dream formed the kernel of CITIZEN ORLOV.
A novel is such a major undertaking; there’s the writing of it, of course, then you’re spending months and months revising, polishing, and then promoting it. How did you know this was the book you wanted to spend the next couple of years on?
I had been trying to write serious, mainstream thrillers for a while, without success. I took my previous novel to my beta-reading group and they tore it to shreds, with some justification. A few months later I shared the first draft of CITIZEN ORLOV with them and the result was the opposite. They loved it; which is how I knew this was the novel to pitch to agents and publishers.
Were there any particular books, movies, or songs that were knocking around in your head while you were writing this one?
Although CITIZEN ORLOV is very much a thriller, I was mostly thinking about two of my favorite Russian literary novels: THE OVERCOAT by Gogol and THE DOUBLE by Dostoyevsky. It was the atmosphere of those books that I wanted to ensure had an influence on my writing.
When you first created your protagonist for this book, did you see an empty space in crime lit that you wanted to fill? What can you share about the inspiration for that character?
I’m fascinated by the reluctant hero, or the fool triumphant. I love characters like James Bond, George Smiley and Richard Hannay, but these heroic figures always seem to me to be limited in some ways by their competence. I wanted to write a thriller that dropped an ordinary character into extraordinary circumstances. Orlov is a working-class everyman who has to learn basic spycraft quickly in order to survive.
In addition to a great read, what do you hope readers will take away from this story?
Without getting too grand about it, I think at its core CITIZEN ORLOV is a story about knowing what you stand for and standing up to those who try to push you around, even if they’re in positions of alleged authority. It’s a story about the little guy coming out on top, and I hope that gives readers encouragement about their own struggles.
What can you share about what you’re working on next?
Currently I’m working on the sequel to CITIZEN ORLOV. I’m also editing a novella called PINSTRIPED!, a retelling of Gogol’s THE OVERCOAT.
Jonathan Payne is a British-American writer based in Washington, D.C. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Novel Writing from Middlesex University, London. His short fiction has been featured at the North London Story Festival and in magazines including Turnpike and Fiction Kitchen Berlin. Before moving to the United States, he worked for the British government on matters of national security.
To learn more about the author and his work, please visit his website.