Review: Red Icon – Sam Eastland

Sam Eastland Red Icon

Series: Inspector Pekkala 6

My version: Paperback
Genre: Historical Fiction, The Soviet Union, World War II, Stalin
Faber & Faber Ltd
First published: 2015
ISBN: 978-0-571-31229-0
Pages: 345


From the cover:
It is 1944. The German army crumbles before the unstoppable tide of the advancing Soviet forces.
In the midst of the fighting, two Russian soldiers seek refuge in the crypt of a German church. There, clutched in the hands of a skeleton priest, they find The Shepherd – a priceless icon thought to have been destroyed long ago.
When news of its discovery reaches Moscow, Stalin calls upon his most trusted investigator, Inspector Pekkala.
To unravel the secret of the icon’s past, Pekkala traces its last known whereabouts to a band of self-mutilating radicals who were hunted to extinction years ago by the Bolshevik Secret Police. Or so it was believed.
With the reappearance of the icon, they have returned to claim the treasure they say belongs to them alone, bringing with them a new and terrible weapon to unleash upon the Russian people.
One man holds the key to Armageddon. Only Pekkala can stop him.

I haven’t read an Inspector Pekkala for a while, and immediately upon starting this, I realised how much I had missed him. And Kirov. Stalin, not so much.

Red Icon, is simply sublime. A lot of it takes place back in Pekkala’s past, in fact, Red Icon is the Pekkala book that, so far, most resembles Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, in format, with respect to the ‘flashbacks’ that is. The only other way, is in their wonderful writing, sense for period detail and general atmosphere. Pekkala isn’t such a sarcastic bugger, only seeming to look after number one, like Bernie. But he’s no cog in the Soviet machine either. He never was, even though he clearly has someone – up there – looking over him. How else could someone so closely linked to the Tsar, have survived so long under Stalin? I guess that Stalin, ironically, is Pekkala’s guardian angel. Here, there is less of the Three Stooges routine with Stalin, Pekkala and Poskrebychev, as there has been a couple of books ago, though I’m sure you’d struggle to find anyone alive or more appropriately, dead, who would go along with the picture painted of Stalin here – or any of the Pekkala books.

The villain of the piece in Red icon, is Rasputin (a point if you didn’t think ‘ra- ra-‘ before Rasputin there). I don’t know a right lot about him, but I’m pretty sure he has appeared in an earlier Pekkala story. The flashbacks to Pekkala’s dealings with him, his relationship to the Tsar and family, and then the whole scenario’s relationship with ‘present day’ is seamless and quite remarkably well done.

But that’s neither here nor there, as this is Pekkala’s story. He really is something of an unsung hero of Historical Fiction. I can’t find many other people singing his, or ‘Sam Eastland’s praises anyway. I’m more and more – and especially after finishing this book – convinced that he is up there on equal footing with David Downing’s Stations and even the afore-mentioned Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther. He at least deserves a place on the same podium.

You can buy Red Icon, from The Book Depository

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