It is a rare thing for a Russia-in-fiction novel to not have Moscow or St Petersburg in it. Yes, there are several that are set elsewhere in Russia, but even these tend to at least visit one or both of Russia’s current and former capitals. Kolymsky Heights is so absolutely determined to avoid them that its central character —sent into Russia by the CIA— enters and leaves by sea from the Far East of the country.
And ‘enters and leaves’ barely covers it. Jonny Porter’s journeys into and out of Russia are perhaps the most convoluted crossings in all the books reviewed on this blog. They take up about a third of this nearly 500-page story.
We will shorten them to a couple of sentences. Porter gets into the Far East of Russia disguised as a Korean seaman, working his passage on a Japanese trading vessel sailing from Nagasaki to Murmansk. He gets out across the ice of the frozen Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska, shot at and shelled by pursuing Russian soldiers.
But before getting too far into the rather fantastical plot of Kolymsky Heights, let’s retreat a little into context.
G. D. (Garry) Abson’s first book is a cracking crime novel, set in contemporary St Petersburg and shaped around the character of a maverick female detective, Natalya Ivanova.
In Abson’s portrayal of Russia, for ‘maverick’, read ‘not corrupt’. Ivanova’s efforts to solve crime —in this case the disappearance of a young woman— are hindered as much by obstructive, careerist, regime-loyal colleagues as they are by the normal stuff such as lack of evidence and the deceptive nature of the criminal class.
One strap-line we have seen used for Motherland goes like this.
Mutilated bodies found in the snow. That is a fairly standard starting point for a Russia-in-fiction detective novel. Think, of course, of the classic of the genre, Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park (1981). Or more recently, G.D. Abson’s second Natalya Ivanova novel, Black Wolf (2019).
City of Ghosts starts with five mutilated bodies found in the snow. This novel is no shy newcomer sneaking into the back of the Russia-in-fiction incident room hoping not to draw attention to itself.
City of Ghosts is the first of the Revol Rossel thriller series. Set in Leningrad in 1951, as the Stalin era is coming to an end, this is a book that knows its Russia, knows Leningrad, and knows Soviet history. The Stalin era did not limp off the global stage but —so far as its reputation for terror and oppression went— it stayed right on until the end of its road. And Leningrad was a particular target for Stalin’s personal ire.
Within this setting, Ben Creed (the pen-name of the co-writing duo Barney Thompson and Christopher Rickaby) develops a macabre tale brimming over with multiple ideas and intentions.
Fancy a little pre-Christmas quiz? This is one for lovers of Russia-in-fiction detective stories. There is only one question, and it is an absolute doddle.
If the first murder victim in a Russia-in-fiction detective thriller is killed with a sickle, how will the second murder victim meet their grisly end?
Of course, to give you the answer might be seen as a spoiler by some —but I am not really one for this fastidious fad for being horrified at minor plot points being revealed. So here goes, the answer is …
Tatiana is the 8th of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, all of which were re-packaged in 2013, with new monochrome photo covers and availability as ebooks.
The Renko novels go all the way back to their remarkable opener, Gorky Park published in 1981, during the dying days of the stagnant but, from this distance, strangely beguiling Brezhnev years. The most recent, The Siberian Dilemma, was published in 2019.
In several interviews over the years —for example in the New York Times in 1990— Martin Cruz Smith has talked about how he originally intended to write a novel about an American detective who goes to Soviet Moscow. Then the ‘obvious idea’ came to him; to make his hero a Russian detective. Arkady Renko was created.