The fact that I've recently read two crime novels set in the U.S.S.R. under Stalin seemed excuse enough for a blog posting. Eye of the Red Tsar by first time novelist Sam Eastland (apparently, a pseudonym)was an interesting, if flawed, read. The portrayal of the Soviet Union in the early years of Stalin's dictatorship was a fascinating one, as was his depiction of the last reigning years of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. The protagonist is Inspector Pekkala who operated as an impartial investigator for the Tsar. After ten years in the gulag post-revolution, he is pulled out by Uncle Joe himself to investigate the murder of the Tsar and his family, to once and for all lay the matter to rest.
The mystery and the setting are reasonably engrossing, but both his politics and his characterizations seem a little simple. Pekkala seems almost superhuman in his abilities as an investigator, his remarkable survival skills, and his incorruptibility. And I'm beginning to think I've read too many mysteries, but the ending seemed telegraphed and fairly obvious to me. The Tsar is seen as so kindly and upstanding I had a little trouble buying it. It also seems as if this is intended to be the first book in a series, and Pekkala will continue to investigate crimes for Stalin. Which doesn't really make sense, as according to Soviet dogma, a country as free and happy as the U.S.S.R. has no crime, so I'm a little baffled as to how this series will progress. At least I'm interested enough to find out how, if he does subsequently publish a sequel (and someone sends me a a reviewer copy).
I think I may be one of the last people to read Child 44, Tom Rob Smith's excellent thriller, which serves almost as a bookend to Eastland's offering as much of the story is set in the Soviet Union in the last months of Stalin's dictatorship. The protagonist, Leo Demidov is an officer with the Soviet secret police, and the book vividly tracks his moral and political awakening through his investigation of a series of child murders. There is paranoia and fear on every page. At some points the Soviet system is seen through the filter of office politics: imagine having a job where if the guy in the next cubicle doesn't like you, or is jealous, or wants your job, he can report you and get you arrested, or killed. The characters are believably canny and paranoid. Leo is a wonderful hero, as he goes on a true journey from being a willfully blind Soviet cog, to being someone who has found some kind of personal decency and a sense of purpose through both his investigation and through a deepening relationship with his wife. Late in the book, Smith indulges in some typical thriller mayhem and silliness which disappointed me as his book is compelling enough that the final coincidence seemed unrealistic and unnecessary.
Child 44 was also of particular interest to me as the serial killer in the book was based on Andrei Chikatilo, who was active in the waining days of the Soviet empire. About ten years ago, Fuzzy Bastard wrote and directed A Little Piece of the Sun (which was revived last year by Gemini/CollisionWorks at The Brick), which also used Chikatilo as a filter to look at a certain moment of Soviet history, so I was curious to see how the case would be used, transposed to a time nearly 30 years earlier. In the world of Child 44, serial killers cannot exist. They are a product of the decadent west. During the course of the investigation, various populations are blamed for the killings: the mentally disabled, homosexuals - or perhaps a crazed Nazi still in Soviet territory since the war. Bad memories of the war and famine hang over the bad present like a miasma.
It seems too silly and obvious to say, but a sense of history is awfully important if one is going to write historical fiction. People fall in love with their research and use entire chapters as an info dump (something I've unfortunately indulged in myself - but, hey, so did Victor Hugo!). The story might be interesting, but the feeling of the particular circumstances of the time and place being written about may be lacking. Tom Rob Smith avoids all of these possible pitfalls, and some over-plotting aside, delivered a thriller that managed to break through the sometimes seemingly impenetrable genre barrier, and made it to the Man Booker long list. His sequel to Child 44 is out now, is speeding (relatively) towards me via the US Mail, and I'm greatly looking forward to reading it and will report back here when I do!