Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Muscovites, Murder and Mayhem: Eye of the Red Tsar and Child 44

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!

7 comments:

n said...

I loved 'A little Piece of the Sun', can I borrow 'Child 44'?

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Hunh! Both sound pretty intriguing to me…

The whitewashing of the Tsar is sadly chronic in Western writings on Russia---there's a bad habit of thinking that what came after was so bad that the Tsar's look pretty good by comparison. Which is not entirely untrue, but can leave readers with a weirdly distorted sense of how the revolution happened (life under the Tsars really was very, very bad, although 1905-1914 were an exceptionally bright spot). But is it really Tsar Alexander he's investigating, not Nicholas II, who was killed by the Bolsheviks? That would be kind of neat.

As for the other: Office politics as governance seems like a perfect description of Soviet life. I remember talking to a documentary director who'd lived through it, who had a lot to say about informing being the tool of first resort when you wanted a promotion, a better apartment, more desk space, or really anything anyone else had. But actually, office politics only sort of analogize, since most offices have at least some objective measures of success. Better to imagine a whole country, with a massive apparatus of state violence, run like a college English department, with all the subtle politicking, bitter rivalries, and maddening lack of objective standards.

For my money, it's the Czechs who really nailed the office politics of the Eastern bloc---Kundera, of course, but also the underrated Josef Skovesky. I haven't read The Miracle Game in a loooong time, but I remember being really striking in evocation of the lethargy, pettiness, and viciousness that marked the post-Stalin years.

Caviglia said...

No, I'm a moron. I meant Nicholas. This is what happens when one churns out three blog posts in one evening. In Eye, the white-washing of the Tsar is completely ludicrous. I was actually pretty kind to the book in my review. There were flashes of some really interesting stuff - like the protagonists drive through a model Soviet village that was set up for a Western press junket. But the author's historical and political sensibilities are pretty much entirely tone deaf.

I actually read Child 44 a few months ago, and it's really stuck with me. The plot gets a little silly at the end - I think mostly because it is a genre exercise and the only way to end the story completely realistically would go like this: "and they all died in the Gulag. The end." Which would totally screw up his pre-sold sequel.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Hm---good to know, as I was about to put holds on both at the library. But I'm reading The Passage now, which is filling my quota of disappointing genre novels...

Caviglia said...

I would be curious to hear what you think of Child 44, as it has so many good things going for it. Eye is really pretty silly.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Btw, I'm amused that "Stalin" is now a category on your blog.

Caviglia said...

Well, I have Gulag Archipelago on my To read and blog about list, so it seemed like the thing to do.