Part one of this review is here.
If you want your Russia-in-fiction tropes, Moscow at Midnight provides a collector’s cornucopia, and does so with style and originality.
As part one of this review observes, McGrane provides so many Moscow references that it might sound as if she reduces them to a passing mention, or, in one of her many memorable phrases, ‘a strange kind of Baedeker’.
Whilst there are occasional hints of that, Moscow at Midnight elevates its location with lyrical and evocative descriptions.
In the heat, the metro bloomed. Like a hothouse, all at once. The vertiginous descent into the communist-coloured earth —plastic panels of reddish-brown— … The wands of light that rose between the escalators, like a funeral march, cast their greenish glow.
Red Square spread out ahead of him. Beckoning. Shimmering. The evening sun cast a warm light on the smooth, uneven cobblestones, red-hued shadows undulating all along the great distance of the square. The Kremlin walls rose up, regal, visceral, ancient. St. Basil’s thorny domes, gaudy and glorious.moscow at midnight
What is more, although Moscow dominates, the setting is not Moscow-only. Max pops into St Petersburg on the overnight train from Moscow, paying the carriage’s attendant in cash to use her small sleeping compartment, and putting me in mind of two such journeys of my own — one a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the second a couple of decades later in the contrasting luxury of a first-class coupe.
Moscow at Midnight then makes much of the ‘closed city’ phenomenon.
Generations of people living in places that do not officially exist. Such suspicion, such secrecy.moscow at midnight
(For another novel that does the same see this review of Black Sun by Owen Matthews)
When Max Rushmore ventures to Novosibirsk and beyond, the reader is taken to a world of diamond mines, nuclear waste, and the mystical beliefs of Siberian shamans. The world of Siberian diamond-mining represents a fairly fruitful setting for thriller writers, from Gerald Browne’s terrific but poorly-named 1989 thriller Hot Siberian to Robin White’s The Ice Curtain (2002).
And the Shamanistic practices for which that vast territory is known come to the fore in Martin Cruz Smith’s ninth Arkady Renko novel The Siberian Dilemma (2019).
Beyond the places, Moscow at Midnight throws in mentions that afficionados of Russian affairs will notice in passing, but most readers will miss. There is, for example, the poorly performing US spy who
once thought it would be a good idea to transport some semi-secret documents wearing a fake blonde wig which was so bizarre-looking that it attracted the attention of Moscow airport security (a feat in itself), at which point [he] decided to run, which led to his tackling, arrest, and a photo that circulated in the international press.moscow at midnight
The briefly famous case of the US embassy third secretary and the blonde wig comes to mind — given the full Daily Mail treatment here.
Or there is the cheeky authorial decision (perhaps influenced by the fact that Sally McGrane lives in Germany) made when Max Rushmore has to adopt a German name and persona to gain entry into a closed Siberian industrial complex. What name would he choose, other than that of the former German Chancellor, whose business links with Russia after leaving office have brought forth accusations of conflicts of interests and being too close to the Russian state and associated industrial giants?
“Did you receive my letter?” asked Max. The man shook his head. “That is a shame,” said Max. “I was afraid that would happen. No matter. I am Gerd Schroeder, of Schroeder Toasters.”moscow at midnight
As throughout Moscow at Midnight, the pleasure is to be had as much from McGrane’s gift for wordplay and description as from the novel’s plot.
A paragraph describing the Siberian night sky took me back to three summer weeks decades ago spent somewhere in Chita Oblast’, and particularly a night-time picnic under a canopy of stars such as I had never imagined
Overhead, the light splashed across the sky, bright pinpoints that seemed to make the heavens transparent, full of depth, something weighty, but also light. Not the blank darkness of the cities in which she’d lived: Moscow, DC, in which the night sky was just an absence of sun. No, this was like a being, like a god, a universe unto itself. She sat back in the Lada’s rickety passenger seat and sighed.moscow at midnight
Alongside winning descriptions, Moscow at Midnight provides too some fleeting but entertaining characters, whose purpose seems to be to serve as a counterpoint to Rushmore’s witty badinage.
For example, whereas you can usually rely on novelists who depict their character’s arrival at a Moscow airport to insert a surly and unfriendly passport control officer glaring at them, in Moscow at Midnight we get Yelena Victorovna Krasnobaeva, ‘Moscow’s prettiest immigration official’.
Max presented his passport to the girl behind the counter. She was young and, under the stark lines of her blue cap, very pretty. A lock of dark hair had escaped the blue cap, and fell to her temple. Her navy uniform was belted, military. An etched nametag, brown and beige, was clipped to her breast. She didn’t so much as glance at Max.
“Passport,” she said, curtly.
“Yelena Victorovna!” said Max. When she showed no sign of response, he leaned in, and whispered, “why are you always breaking my heart?”
“Reason for travel?” She said, eyes fixed on the passport in her hands.
“Business,” sighed Max.
“Last date of entry into the Russian Federation?”
“It’s been thirteen months, Lenochka. If I could have come sooner, I would have.”
“Proposed length of stay?”
“If you were mine, I’d never leave.” The girl coughed, a frown appearing on her brow. Max added, quickly, “but it looks like three weeks. Depending on how business goes.”
She nodded once and grasped the stamp on her desk. It came down heavily, a click and a thud, one-two
… She handed Max back his passport and said with an enchanting smile, “we’ve missed you, Mr. Rushmore.”Moscow at midnight
If you enjoy fiction about Russia, Moscow at Midnight is a particular treat. Settling down to read it, I felt a little like Max Rushmore when he gets through airport security and sits back in his taxi as it heads into Russia’s capital.
Max’s heart lifted, a little. He was in. He was back. He was ok.moscow at midnight
Part one of this review is here.