It is apt that with the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union on the horizon, British readers have become enthralled by the transgressions hidden by its creation. This is ably illustrated by the runaway success of Tom Rob Smith's Child 44, which had a serial killer active in Stalinist Russia, and RN Morris's novels, in which Dostoevsky's investigator, Porfiry Petrovich, takes further magisterial steps. The pre-Soviet times, those heady days of Fabergé eggs and grand balls, bread queues and uprisings, along with the post-revolution paranoid fug, possess a powerful hold on the collective western imagination.
The debut of Sam Eastland's resilient Inspector Pekkala is therefore timely. We first meet Pekkala a decade after the revolution. He's become something less than a man, exiled to the Siberian gulags where he lives in the forests, marking trees for felling. His savage existence belies a keen intellect and a unique past. Both of these are to be utilised once more when a young commissar arrives at his cabin to bring him back to Uncle Joe's version of civilisation. We simultaneously learn Pekkala's story through a series of flashbacks, and the progression of his present predicament.
Pekkala is the second son of a Finnish undertaker, growing up when the country was a Russian colony. When his older brother, Anton, is rusticated from the Tsar's Finnish regiment, Pekkala is sent to take his place. Up to this point it's Great Expectations with snow boots: "Pekkala leaned from the window of an east-bound train, waving to his parents until their faces were only pink cat licks in the distance and the ranks of pine closed up around the little station house." St Petersburg here we come. Once in the ranks, his sense of propriety and pathologically accurate memory bring him to the attention of the Tsar. He becomes the "Emerald Eye", his Excellency's personal detective: "a man who could not be threatened or beaten or corrupted into surrendering his sense of what was right or wrong".
But history tells us that nothing can protect the Romanovs and, ironically under the orders of Stalin, it is to investigate their murder in Yekaterinburg that Pekkala's lumbering exile is disturbed. It proves to be a mightily cold case.
Eastland – which his publishers inform us is the pseudonym of an English author living in America – has a sure understanding of historical events and how to weave his fictional tale into them. The see-saw narrative is a perfect ploy for a thriller, taking in both the dying embers of the Romanov era and the wake-up call that would follow with the purges and the famines, the assassinations and torture chambers. Pervading this breakneck novel is the sense of an age when personal security was a fallacy, to be trusted no more than the medicinal qualities of the raw vodka knocked back in the taverns. This is a country that has thrown itself out of the frying pan and into the fire.
An unnecessary love-story subplot feels added to satiate market demand. And why does a crime series negate the need for quality packaging? (Eye of the Red Tsar is jacketed with bolster-embossed cover art that reminded me of those petrol station birthday cards errant husbands buy at the last minute.) However, these are small annoyances.
An eccentric cast enlivens the travails of our Imperial hero. Eastland's ability to juggle those rum eggs, peculiarity and plausibility, without scrambling the story is key to his book's success. What can you say about a novel that has a teenage chef turned political officer as perpetually conflicted as his diet, and a chain-smoking spymaster with a wooden arm and a sideline in philosophical rumination, except a hearty Na zdorovye!