Series: Inspector Pekkala 3
My version: Paperback
Historical Fiction Russia, Soviet Union
Faber and Faber
1939. Russia teeters on the verge of war with Germany.
It’s also on the brink of bankruptcy. To preserve his regime, Stalin orders a search for the legendary missing gold of Tsar Nicholas II and summons his chief detective, Inspector Pekkala, to find the treasure.
Pekkala’s mission is to re-enter the brutal Siberian gulag where he himself was once held captive – and then infiltrate a gang of convicts still loyal to the Tsar. In this frozen fortress he begins to unravel the mystery and with it the true identity of a murdered inmate whose secrets have lain buried for years. Yet the clues lead to a shocking conspiracy that could decide not only Pekkala’s fate, but the future of the Soviet Union itself.
Speculate with me if you will, how difficult it must be to write a book like this, a thriller, set in the real world, and featuring real, historical people and places. We know, of course, that Stalin lived on past 1939, past the war and died a good while later, presumably of natural causes. Or as natural as causes got in the Soviet Union of that time. We know that this case didn’t decide the future of the Soviet Union. Well, what we know from this side of the Iron Curtain anyway. How their finances were at the time, we can’t know, probably they didn’t know either. Everything always went swimmingly it seemed. So, given that, the excitement, the tension, the doubt about what might happen, has to be taken away from actual events and placed upon the imaginary characters. As Inspector Pekkala. We know enough of Stalin’s character to know that he was a paranoid lunatic, surrounded by paranoid lunatics and we presume that saying “I’ll pass, thank you all the same” when given an assignment such as this, probably wasn’t an option. Not if you wanted to see the next five-year plan out anyway.
The Speesh Reads Fact Dept reports: Sam Eastland is actually the pen name of Paul Watkins, an American author who, unbeknown to me, is actually the same Paul Watkins who wrote The Thunder God, one of my favourite – and one of the best – Viking novels I’ve read. Well, would you believe?
So, does Sam Eastland manage to make the book tense and exciting? Yes, he most certainly does. His Soviet Union, even given that most of this happens in the half-frozen Siberian Gulags, isn’t quite as bleak and mind-stunningly without hope, as Tom Rob Smith‘s Soviet Union, though pretty close. The thing that sometimes lets the book down are the exchanges between Stalin and his personal secretary. That is written more like a ’70’s BBC sit-com set in a big office, than what I imagine was the reality. But otherwise, it’s a well-written mystery, that unfolds the story out very convincingly and never loses interest. The facts (I’m presuming this is how it was there) and the scenes in the Gulags out in the unimaginably frozen tundra, are bleak in every way. The background for the mystery and the solution, are convincingly portrayed and work vey well indeed.
As the third in the Inspector Pekkala series, this is the equal of the first two and a great book to make me look forward to getting stuck into the next two. We’re comfortable with knowing Inspector Pekkala, we know him, how he is likely to behave, but he can still surprise us. That’s what you want from a long running character. Maybe he has more surprises to reveal about his methods and his past, and I look forward to getting stuck into The Red Moth.
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