Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley have walk-on parts. Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Goebbels play decisive minor roles. Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler hover in the wings, taking a close personal interest. And, at the centre of the plot, the relatives of playwright Anton Chekhov enact an extraordinary drama of exile and espionage, celebrity and concealment, against the corpse-strewn, war- torn backdrop of the two most vicious dictatorships in human history.
"At times, I got the feeling I was writing a novel rather than a work of history or documentary biography," Antony Beevor says about his new book, The Mystery of Olga Chekhova. "If one did write it as a novel, people might find it far-fetched."
So the best-selling historian and former officer in the 11th Hussars was not surprised that the presenter Andrew Marr, before recording yesterday's Start the Week for Radio 4, asked him for an assurance that he had not fallen for a spoof similar to the one the novelist William Boyd engineered when he invented a well-connected artist called Nat Tate.
With its tall tales of survival rather than slaughter, Beevor's new book offers a little respite for the armies of readers who have come to see him as a sort of literary Angel of Death. The early military histories by this former tank commander, who wrote four far- from-successful novels after leaving the Army, had won the experts' applause but made few waves beyond a specialist audience.
Then Stalingrad, in 1998, single-handedly revived the genre of popular battlefield history, with its moving and dramatic portrayals of individuals caught in the worst place, at the worst time, in history. Two years ago, Berlin: the Downfall 1945 confirmed Beevor's matchless ability to tell the gripping human story within the wide and bloody sweep of modern mechanised warfare. Indeed, his singular ability to make huge historical events accessible to a general audience recalls the golden age of British narrative history, whose giants include Gibbon, Macaulay and Carlyle. In his histories, the novelist's focus combines explosively with the strategist's vision.
And Andrew Marr was reassured: the improbable Olga Chekhova - actress, Nazi film star, Soviet agent and survivor of Lenin's Russia and Hitler's Germany - did exist. Born into the "prodigal and disordered" Bohemian circles of late-tsarist Russia in 1897, she died a grande dame of the German screen in 1980.
A lifelong chameleon, Olga became a woman who "could change her face at will for each part", in the studio and outside it. "In those terrible, turbulent times, she had managed to put a roof over her family's head and feed them," says Beevor, who has painted wartime trauma on an epic rather than domestic canvas in Stalingrad and Berlin: The downfall 1945. "It was very much the Russian notion of family, and the protection of the family."
For Beevor, the appeal lay "not so much in the spy story; was she or wasn't she?" The most convincing answer would run: "Yes, she was an agent, but not remotely as significant as her awestruck Soviet debriefers believed in 1945.
"For me, the interest of the whole story is much more this family saga. With the Chekhovs split between their German side - the Knippers - and their chaotic Russian side, I felt it was a wonderfully illustrative picture of that dangerous fascination between Germany and Russia."
Olga was related twice over to the great playwright. The teenage niece of his actress wife Olga Knipper, who came from a German family long settled in Moscow, in 1914 she briefly (and disastrously) briefly married Anton's nephew, her cousin Misha. The hard-drinking, self-pitying but fitfully brilliant star of the Moscow Art Theatre, Misha wound up in Beverly Hills. There he gave lessons in the legendary "method" of his mentor (and Olga Knipper's), Konstantin Stanislavsky, to the likes of …