Review: The Red Coffin – Sam Eastland

Inspector Pekkala 1

My version: Paperback
Genre: Fiction, Russia, World War II
 Faber & Faber
First published: 2011
ISBN: 9780571245321
Pages: 368

From the cover:
“It is 1939. The world stands on the brink of Armageddon. In the Soviet Union, years of revolution, fear and persecution have left the country unprepared to face the onslaught of Nazi Germany. For the coming battles, Stalin has placed his hopes on a 30-ton steel monster, known to its inventors as the T-34 tank, and, the ‘Red Coffin’ to those men who will soon be using it.
But the design is not yet complete. And when Colonel Nagorski, the weapon’s secretive and eccentric architect, is found murdered, Stalin sends for Pekkala, his most trusted investigator. Stalin is convinced that a sinister group calling itself the White Guild, made up of former soldiers of the Tsar, intend to bring about a German invasion before the Red Coffin is ready. While Soviet engineers struggle to complete the design of the tank, Pekkala must track down the White Guild and expose their plans to propel Germany and Russia into conflict.”

For a long time, I wasn’t really sure which way to go on this one.

Was it long and dull and miserable, with not an awful lot of any consequence happening after the initial, interesting set-up?

Or was it a slow-burning, languid, subtle study of a police investigation in late ’30’s Russia? A Russia still remembering and indeed revering the rule of the Tsars, whilst feeling its way forward into the true terror of the workers paradise Stalin had in store. A story where all that goes before the final third, builds quite nicely, everything falling into place, making sense and almost excusing the rather misleading cover blurb.

In the end, I think the latter has won out. But with a hefty dose of the former.

So, as the cover blurb has it;

“A secret weapon. A suspicious death. A world on the edge of war.”

Yes, that’s all true. But if you’re looking for a fast-moving, thrilling, tense war-time novel, look elsewhere. After the set-up and before the final conclusion in the forests on the Russia/Poland border, the story sags tremendously, gets lost in morbid reminiscences and descriptions of Russian life at the ourtbreak of WWII and generally moves at a snail’s pace.

The saving grace is, that if you give up expecting it to be what it isn’t, a fast-paced WWII espionage thriller, it actually works quite well. The languid descriptions of Inspector Pekkala’s life under Stalin and his previous life working closely with the last Tsar, Tsarina and Rasputin, are actually very interesting. Though it must be something of a cliche, that Russians are always morose. But life at that time was bleak and Sam Eastland captures the feeling of hoplessnes and nothing to look forward to except possible impending doom, quite effectively. The snail’s pace actually turns out to be a considered and reflective examination of the old and ‘new’ Russia and generally makes you very glad you weren’t around at the time. Or if you were around at that time, that you weren’t unfortunate enough to be around in Russia. And especially not around Stalin.

I’ve got to admit that in reading The Red Coffin, I didn’t recognise the novel all the quoted reviewers seem to have read. Maybe they’re describing what seems to be the other, the first Inspector Pekkala story? But I did finally think I enjoyed this one, and will look out for the first, Eye Of The Red Tsar, going cheap in my local bookstore, as this one was.

You can buy The Red Coffin from The Book Depository

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