Snowdrops, By AD Miller

An Englishman abroad succumbs to temptation

The snowdrops of the title are not delicate spring flowers. Rather, the word here is a nasty piece of slang prevalent in Moscow for a corpse that lies buried in the snow all winter, only emerging in the thaws of spring.

This fine debut from a former journalist opens with just such a discovery. It is not a conventional crime novel, however; instead it is a deeply atmospheric, slow-burning examination of the effects of modern Russia on the soul of foreign visitors, and of one man's subtle but inexorable slide into moral decay.

AD Miller was the Moscow correspondent for The Economist a few years back, and he has clearly drawn on his experiences to tell the story of Nick, an English lawyer who travels to the Russian capital to broker huge deals between banks, oil companies and property developers.

The work he does there is legal according to the letter of the law, but the corruption and violence that simmer at all levels of the city gradually seep into Nick's way of thinking about the world. At the start of the book, he is far from naïve and certainly not entirely innocent, but his gradual progression from turning a blind eye to active criminal participation is the central motif of Snowdrops, beautifully drawn and mirrored in several ingenious subplots.

As well as his working life, Nick is cynical in his personal relationships, until he meets the stunningly beautiful Masha and her younger sister, Katya, on the Metro. Nick is a realist, and wary of exactly what two gorgeous young women might want with a late-thirties English stuffed shirt such as him. But he allows himself to be led by them into a series of manoeuvres and scenarios, the implications of which his romantic self allows him to ignore.

At the same time, one of Nick's neighbours has had a friend go missing, and asks for help in finding him. On top of all that, the deal Nick is negotiating with an intimidating businessman known only as the Cossack reeks of strong-arm tactics and dodgy dealings, but Nick and his colleagues are persuaded not to dig too deeply beneath the surface.

Miller is absolutely wonderful at evoking the seediness and cynicism of Moscow, and he is even better at physical description. The Russian seasons, from the sadistic winter to the sweltering summer, are evoked with scintillating clarity.

One or two niggling faults with the writing tend to detract from Miller's otherwise beautifully rendered prose, though. The narrative is framed as a post-visit confession by Nick to an unnamed English fiancée about his behaviour while in Moscow, a device which adds nothing to proceedings and ends up just being annoying.

Also, Miller seems overly keen on foreshadowing and building up a sense of foreboding. Time and again, he ends a chapter reflecting on the nastiness of Nick's actions later down the line. Don't bother, you want to yell, just get on with telling the story. The technique also backfires when the extent of Nick's amorality is revealed and it turns out to be... well, it's not exactly Hannibal Lecter level, which makes all Miller's earlier warnings about it seem somewhat over the top. Despite that, Snowdrops remains an impressive debut and Miller is a skilled depicter of place, character and mood.