Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

AMWBreathYou can read my review of Philip Kerr’s latest Bernie Gunther thriller A Man Without Breath at Euro Crime.


This novel should be a strong contender for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Crime Fiction Award simply for its educational value in being informative about some of the terrible events that went on in Eastern Europe, before and during World War II. Yet another novel that makes me very grateful that my great grandparents, and grandparents had the foresight to take a boat trip west in the 19th and early 20th century. 

ehitdcI read six more crime fiction books during a cold miserable February and they varied between historical thrillers and psychological mysteries. pickofthemonth2012


Into The Darkest Corner: Elizabeth Haynes-[To Be Reviewed next week]

A superb  psychological thriller and a debut novel which I literally could not put down as the author racks up the tension towards the conclusion.


Pierced: Thomas Enger translator Charlotte Barslund- A disappointing book for me with too many pages, too much switching of perspective, and 119 chapters. I will be reading number three in this series and hoping the choppy style will be smoothed out a bit. 

The Bridge of Sighs: Olen Steinhauer– A good police procedural set in a fictional post-Second World War Eastern European country that had been “liberated” by the Red Army. Four more books await me in this interesting series.

Bones and Silence: Reginald Hill– The 1990 CWA Gold Dagger winning police procedural from one of England’s greatest crime writers. 

Beast In View: Margaret Millar- This brilliant psychological mystery won the Edgar in 1955, but unfortunately shows its age with outdated attitudes. Nevertheless a great read with a fantastic twist and a glimpse of the past. 

A Man Without Breath: Philip Kerr- [The review to appear on Euro Crime]- Another fine book in the Bernie Gunther series.

And my pick of the month was another close run thing but Into The Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes was something a bit different from my recent reading and therefore was my February choice.

51ZVqbXsTKL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU02_Time to catch up on blogging about my February reading after a very busy time last week.

The Bridge of Sighs is the first in  set of five books set in a fictional Eastern European country between 1948 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; each book is set in a different decade. In the first book it is 1948 and we follow Emil Brod, a young recruit in the People’s Militia, as he investigates the murder of a state songwriter in the newly liberated country. The reader discovers the vast gulf between the wealthy and the ordinary people has not been altered by the people’s republic and communism, there is just a different elite. Emil follows the clues, despite the efforts of members of the party hierarchy and his uncooperative colleagues to dissuade him, going to Berlin during the Allied airlift, and getting involved with the seductive Lena Crowder, the songwriter’s widow.  I really enjoyed this novel,which was a blend of police procedural, political treatise and love story, and it well deserved the shortlisting for the CWA Ellis Peters, Barry, Macavity, Anthony and Edgar Awards. The writing style is smooth and the narrative is full of interesting characters especially Emil’s “red” Grandfather, Avram Brod, a man with a sad past.

I look forward to reading the rest of this series set in a part of the world where “liberation” after the Second World War  left a bitter legacy for the population. I think I could  designate The Bridge of Sighs, Animal Farm for crime fiction fans.

Author Olen Steinhauer was raised in Texas, but was inspired to write this series while studying on a Fulbright Fellowship in Romania. 

The “thick Muscovites” were those men who, after spending the 1930s throwing rocks and shooting politicians, had escaped to Moscow during the war, where they camped out in hotels. General Secretary Mihai had been among them. They appeared again just behind the Red Army to set up the interim government, and with the 1946 elections had the remarkable good fortune of being voted immediately into power.

They were called “thick” because when they returned from Moscow they were almost without exception, so plump their own families had trouble recognizing them.  

I have just finished reading Outrage by Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason [review to follow in the next few days] and just started a non-Nordic book as part of my plan to balance my reading in 2012 when Harri Nykanen’s Nights of Awe dropped through my letterbox. This is another book from Bitter Lemon Press, a thriller  set in Helsinki with an eccentric hero Inspector Ariel Kafka of the Violent Crimes Unit, and involves possible international terrorism, Finnish Security Police and Mossad. Very tempting but I am going to stick to my plan and put this one on my to-be -read shelf for the time being. But it does give me an excuse to post some photos of Finland. They were taken some twenty years ago as my son in the red cagoule is now married! 

Finland Station is of course not in Finland, but in St Petersburg, Russia. But the photos are taken on the waterfront in Helsinki, at the railway station, and somewhere north of Helsinki that was very very cold. At the time of our visit the far right charismatic Russian politician Vladimir Zhironovsky was making long speeches, and waving his arms around in a threatening manner. Everyday streams of large black limousines would pull up outside Finnish department stores, the food halls of which were full of caviar and sides of salmon making Harrods look like something out of the Third World, and deposited on the snowy pavements their cargo of short old balding KGB men, accompanied by tall young blonde women. 

It was in our hotel’s sauna that some younger Russians mentioned that the only place they had visited in England was “your beautiful English city of Portsmouth.” Our reaction was that they were probably Russian Naval Intelligence if Portsmouth was the only place in England they had bothered to visit. [I haven’t forgotten that those great ships HMS Victory and HMS Warrior are well worth a visit to Portsmouth.] 

The book I have started is The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming, a spy thriller, which made me think about Russia and her tortuous journey from Soviet superstate to Putin’s version of a democratic country. Gulp… I have to thank my great grandmother for her refusal to allow her son- in- law to accept the Tsar’s invitation to spend twenty five years in the Imperial Russian Army for my soft life.

Why on earth do British people from privileged backgrounds embrace these ideologies that produce nothing but misery for ordinary people?

St Petersburg, Russia April 1872

While magistrate Virginsky watches a spectacular fire set by arsonists a man whose face resembled a bespectacled axe head gives him a manifesto to read.  He sees a kindred spirit in the young magistrate, a potential recruit for the revolutionary cause.

The ice on the Winter Canal is thawing and as young sailors plunge into the water they find a body  dumped into the canal before the water froze over. The sailors call on Kozodavlev standing on the bridge to call the police or the City Guard. But Kozodavlev runs away and before he can be tracked down by the investigating magistrates Porfiry Petrovich and Pavel Pavlovich Virginsky his apartment is destroyed by a fire and the body of an adult male is found in the wreckage with six young children dead in the neighbours apartment. 

As Porfiry and Virginsky pursue their case Pavel Pavlovich is tempted  to infiltrate, or perhaps even join, the revolutionary cell responsible for printing political manifestos, arson and murder. 

With a large cast of memorable characters, such as the frighteningly disfigured brutal policeman Salytov, the dissolute aristocrat Prince Dolgoruky, and the “new woman” Tatyana Ruslanovna there is always plenty to keep the reader interested in and concentrating on the action.

I am very pleased that the The Cleansing Flames has been shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters, because there are very few authors who can blend accounts of horrendous crimes with entertaining humour.

Roger Morris achieves this while exposing both the stupidity and bureaucratic incompetence at the heart of Tsarist Russia, and the naivety of the revolutionaries:

‘You are aware,’ began the younger librarian, who was evidently more senior in rank,’that one of the titles you have requested is a restricted publication.’ 

‘ I was not aware of that. I was not even aware that there is a list of restricted publications.’

‘That is hardly surprising. The list itself is restricted.’

The story emphasizes the historical fact that revolutions are usually made by  the middle class professionals, writers, poets, and professors, who don’t have a clue as to what they are unleashing. 

‘There are some men who are, undoubtedly, motivated by a universal love of mankind.’ Porfiry leant back in his chair as he warmed to his theme. ‘But they find that the mankind they love does not correspond exactly to the sordid, ungrateful, greedy men and women they see around them.’ 

The Cleansing Flames with a combination of meticulous research, an interesting plot, an intelligent thought provoking narrative, and dialogue that fits the time and place is an excellent but not particularly  fast read. But it is well worth taking the time to get immersed in the story, and look out for the hilarious incident towards the end of the book that reminded me of a scene in Where Eagles Dare with Richard Burton. 

With the ongoing court case over changes in public sector pensions I could not help laughing out loud at a passage in The Cleansing Flames by R.N.Morris. Once again crime fiction is at the cutting edge in both social commentary and finding solutions to problems. I would mention that the contrasting magistrates Porfiry and Virginsky in the St Petersburg mystery series remind me of Morse and Lewis, and Dalziel and Pascoe. There can’t be much higher praise.  

‘Are you the owner of the house?’ demanded Salytov sceptically. ‘I am.’ ‘The retired Arab?’ ‘That is correct.’ 

‘You do not look like an Arab. Your skin is whiter than mine.’ ‘I am not an Arab by race. But I am one officially, you see.’

‘No, I do not see. Some kind of fraud has been perpetrated here, I’ll warrant.’

‘No fraud. My transformation to Arabhood was sanctioned by the authorities. I went through the proper channels. It was my wife’s idea. She heard that Arabs retired from the service with twice the pension of ordinary Russians. “Ask them if you can retire as an Arab,” she said. And so I did. I put forward a petition, stating my reasons-‘

‘Reasons? What reasons could you possibly have?’

‘Well my main reason was that I could do with the extra money.’  

I have started reading the next book in my personal challenge to read the 2011 CWA Ellis Peters Award shortlist. This is The Cleansing Flames by R.N.Morris, and looking back to my review of A Razor Wrapped in Silk, his previous book in the St Petersburg mystery series featuring Porfiry Petrovich- the investigator from Crime and Punishment, I noted that at that time [March 2010] I was struggling with a shattered kneecap. I became so engrossed in the book and for a while forgot about the pain. Perhaps the handfuls of delicious codeine tablets helped as well.

The Cleansing Flames is set in Tsarist Russia in 1872, during a long period of revolutionary turmoil that culminated in the events of 1917. I am particularly interested in this part of Russian history, because my great grandparents and grandparents had the good sense to decide that frequent pogroms and providing cannon fodder for the Tsar’s wars was not a future they wanted for their descendants, and emigrated en masse to the UK. It was a sad irony that the family’s first child born in England [my uncle] was to die fighting in a British uniform in the September 1918 assault on the Hindenburg Line. 

I was a little surprised to find that this is the first time Roger Morris has been shortlisted for the award, although he did get  special mentions for A Vengeful Longing in 2008, and A Razor Wrapped in Silk last year. Hopefully this shortlisting will bring a lot more readers to this intelligent series.  

Last year Roger Morris was kind enough to submit to my online interviews which gave us some fascinating insights into the series. Here are the links to that interview, his own website and the reviews of his books.

The website of  Roger Morris. 

Part One of the Roger Morris interview 

Part Two

Part Three