A bit of relaxation reading this week, but this time, a very gripping novel set in Stalin’s Russia involving a personal audience with Stalin, a hunt for a great art treasure and a terrifying journey across the Russian/German front-line.
I’ve only recently come across Sam Eastland although he has been writing for a very long time, mainly under his real name of Paul Watkins. Although an American by parentage, he was born in England and educated at The Dragon School and Eton College, before going on to graduate from Yale University. He wrote his first book at the age of 16 and since then has published many novels.
His last four books, written under the name Sam Eastland, have been set in post-revolutionary Russia and feature Finnish detective Inspector Pekkala. Pekkala was a favourite of the Tsar and after the revolution ended up in the Gulags. The first book in the series, Eye of the Red Tsar (a bargain on Kindle) , sees Stalin calling Pekkala out of the Gulags in order to investigate who really killed the Romanov family and what happened to their treasure.
The Red Moth was published this month and is the fourth book in the “Inspector Pekkala” series. It can be read without knowledge of the previous three books because enough background information is given to fill in the gaps in Pekkala’s biography. When the book opens, Pekkala has advanced to a senior position in the Soviet Union’s secret police, the NKVD, and is the possessor of a “shadow pass”, a Classified Operations Permit, which enables a man to “appear and disappear at will within the wilderness of regulations that controlled the State” and also to requisition any person or equipment required for their special operations.
In The Red Moth, we find ourselves in 1941. The German army is advancing eastwards through Russia and is even beginning to threaten Moscow. Stalin is directing the war effort but is worried about Russia’s great art treasures and is determined that they will not fall into German hands. In the art galleries and museums of Moscow lists are being drawn up of the most valuable artefacts so that they can be moved eastwards but for items located in the grand palaces of the west, it may already be too late.
Stalin is particularly worried about the Amber Room, installed by Empress Catherine I in 1717 in the Catherine Palace or Tsarskoye Selo. This magnificent and priceless artefact consists of a room with walls lined in amber. The author helpfully lists its real-life history at the end of the book. It is sometimes dubbed the eighth wonder of the world, and reconstructed in 2003 (see Wikipedia article and click on the photograph to see it full size). Inspector Pekkala is tasked with the job of securing the Amber Room, an incredibly complex and challenging task, but with Comrade Stalin’s commands behind him, he has no option other than to try to rise to the challenge.
The core of the novel is surrounded by a number of sub-plots and as Pekkala and his colleagues travel around Moscow we learn much about daily life in Soviet Russia. In a parallel story line which eventually converges with the main one, we become acquainted with a Russian anti-aircraft gun team who are operating on the Russian/German front-line near the Catherine Palace. The author describes the grim realities of war as the soldiers deal with incoming planes and advancing tanks, in an attempt to defend the palace.
A wide cast of characters support the story, including Stalin himself, who seems to be realistically drawn, bearing about him such an air of terror that even his favoured servants have to walk in fear for their lives. At one point, Pekkala has to visit a convict in the Lubyanka prison and the author spares his readers no detail of the dreadful conditions in the underground cells. Pekkala knows of course that mission failure on his part could see him incarcerated along with those he has come to interview.
The Red Moth is a very well-written and cleverly-constructed book and having read it I now want to go and read the other three novels in the series. I’ve only been able to locate one other review of this book, in The Independent; you can read it here.