Faber £12.99

Eye of the Red Tsar, By Sam Eastland

An agent comes in from the cold of the Siberian gulags, in this breakneck Soviet-era thriller

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!

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee