Stalin's Russia, in that up-for-grabs maelstrom bookended by the October Revolution and the Cold War, was always going to be a heady setting for a crime series, and Sam Eastland has mined it expertly with his Inspector Pekkala novels. This is a time of gulags and purging, betrayals and elevations, in which yesterday's chef is tomorrow's Commissar; where the people starve and the party mandarins feast.
The Red Moth, the fourth adventure for the durable Finnish detective, is a fine addition to the series. Pekkala was once "The Emerald Eye", the personal detective of Tsar Nicholas II, but was sentenced to a Siberian work camp once the Bolsheviks seized power. In his debut case, The Eye of the Red Tsar, Pekkala returned, under Stalin's orders, from a decade of purgatory to a future in service of his old enemy.
It is now 1941 and Pekkala and his beleaguered sidekick Major Kirov are tasked with protecting one of the great Imperial treasures: The Amber Room in the Catherine Palace. "It is not possible to grasp the vast complexity of those thousands of fragments of amber," states Semykin, the imprisoned art curator assisting Pekkala. "Once in a thousand years, we forget about butchering each other just long enough to create a work of art so much greater than ourselves that it becomes a symbol of achievement for the entire human race. The Amber Room is such a thing."
However, Nazi plunderers are at the gate and Pekkala and Kirov need to fight a rearguard action from either side of the Russian front. Pekkala is an intriguing protagonist, a narrative dynamo who is so isolated and conflicted by his Faustian pact as to be a flickering, spectral presence. This is a wise ploy, as it allows room for the supporting cast, such as the culinary-minded Kirov, to pursue their own stories. It also highlights the perilous position held by any comrade with a past; a predicament where being a ghost is the only way to stay alive.
But then the author himself is something of a phantom. Sam Eastland is the pseudonym of the celebrated American novelist and memoirist Paul Watkins. Here he returns to the curious canvas of the art world at war which he brilliantly detailed under his own name more than a decade ago in The Forger. In doing so he has created speculative fiction of the finest type and proved that Pekkala is one ghost with a few lives left to live.