Patenaude focuses just on the Mexican period, from January 1937 to August 1940, of Trotsky’s exile, although the previous stages of his exile — Kazakhstan in 1928, then Turkey for four years, France for another three, followed by interment in Norway — are dealt with in a series of flashbacks. In fact, the whole book is written as if Trotsky in Coyoacán were recalling his past, from his prosperous farmer’s boyhood to his underground militancy, his Civil War military brilliance, and his blundering incompetence as a Bolshevik power-broker. The danger that Patenaude flirts with is to let Trotsky’s charisma and undoubted genius charm him into overlooking his subject’s monstrous indifference to the suffering and deaths of others, sometimes even of those close to him, as well as his overweening conceit.
By dealing with the last phase of the tragedy, nemesis, Trotsky is seen to pay in fear, resignation, failure, and personal loss a price that may not be commensurate with the destruction of life that he himself caused between 1918 and 1922. Only Vladimir Nabokov might have written a more compelling account of Trotsky’s end (and its relationship to his beginnings). A dethroned Russian in exile, waiting for his killer to come from the homeland even while he is desperately trying to complete his biography of the killer (Stalin), is life imitating Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Invitation to a Beheading or Bend Sinister. Only Humbert Humbert’s murder of Quilty can match the sheer incompetence of the first attempt to murder the Trotskys — a group of Stalinists led by Siqueiros, the rival mural-painter to Diego Rivera, Trotsky’s protector, is let in by a young American traitor, rakes all the bedrooms with machine-gun fire but fails to see that the Trotskys, hiding under their bed, have survived unscathed — followed by clumsy success (almost requiring Trotsky’s collusion) in which NKVD agent Ramón Mercader, calling himself Jacson, a French Canadian sympathiser, despite a dubious French accent, enters the study unchallenged wearing a hat and a raincoat on a Mexican summer’s day and hits Trotsky on the head with the wrong side of an ice-pick. Patenaude’s narrative skill, however, keeps a wry smile, rather than a wicked grin, on the reader’s face.