Peter Higgins sets out what you think will be his stall for this rather wonderful debut novel, and then utterly upends it by the end of the second page.
In the first few hundred words, we are introduced to Investigator Vissarion Lom, a put-upon detective in what appears to be the Russian police, or secret service, who is sitting in a café watching a suspected terrorist or agitator sitting on a bench across the rain-swept street. Higgins is proficient enough at painting the picture, and the appellations – Café Rikhel, Ansky Prospect, Durnovo-Burliuk Street – appear to leave us in no doubt that we are somewhere deep in a utilitarian Soviet city.
Then Higgins throws in this curve-ball: "A line of giants, each leading a four-horse dray team and double wagon loaded high with resin tanks, was lumbering up the hill."
And the surprises keep on coming … but quietly and subtly, like a dreaded knock on the door of an apartment in a brutalist concrete tower block in the dead of night. There has been some kind of war in heaven, we are told, and angels have fallen to earth. The Moon has been sundered. Vissarion Lom has a sliver of angel-stuff in his forehead. And it's only when you are maybe halfway through this compelling tale that you realise Peter Higgins has never once mentioned the word "Russia", nor any other familiar place. And you realise that this might not be the world we know at all.
In short order, Lom is summoned to Mirgorod (that's a real place, on our maps) and set to catch Josef Kantor, a criminal threatening the ordered life in this not-Russia. Wolfhound Century is at turns a Cold War thriller and an outright fantasy novel; Higgins (even the author's name suggests he should be a spy novelist) deftly manipulating the psychogeography of his half-familiar world to keep us in tune with the characters, even as the weird differences that mark out the setting as incontrovertibly alien become more and more marked.
There are hints that Lom's world might not be utterly divorced from our own, though as with the labyrinthine, Kafka-esque bureaucracy that rules his life, answers are not always forthcoming. The story builds to a tense climax that, infuriatingly, ends rather damply, but a follow-up is due from Gollancz next year, in which Higgins will hopefully offer solutions to the many puzzles this excellent debut novel presents.