Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review of The Red Coffin by Sam Eastland (Faber, 2011)

Colonel Nagorski is the paranoid developer of the T-34 tank at an isolated, secret plant. He is, however, suspected of security breaches at the site that will put the tank's plans in the hands of the German military. Not long after being interviewed by Inspector Pekkala, Stalin's personal investigator, Nagorski is dead, crushed beneath the tracks of one of his prototype tanks. The site is sealed and with strong security, so it seems certain that his killer is a member of his team. Shortly after Pekkala arrives, a ruthless NKVD major arrives determined to solve the case. The investigation suggests that The White Guild - a group of individual's still loyal to the long dead Tsar and want to overthrow Stalin by enticing the Germans into a war - has been seeking to infiltrate the T-34 project. Pekkala has himself got links to the old Tsar having been his personal investigator twenty years previously. Now he must pitch his wits against old allies in order to solve Nagorski's murder and stop a premature start to a war.

I have a soft spot for historical crime fiction set in the 1930s and 1940s and there's certainly been a mini-boom of such stories in recent years by authors such as Philip Kerr, Alan Furst, John Lawton, William Ryan, Rebecca Cantrell, Laura Wilson, Carlo Lucarelli, and Mark Mills. What marks these books out is a fine eye for historical detail combined with ripping yarns. The Red Coffin deceives with respect to both. For the most part the historical context seems okay, providing some insight into the Russia of the Tsar and Stalin. And yet a number of elements just didn't seem to ring true and there were slight continuity errors. It seems fantastical that Inspector Pekkala would have been the chief personal investigator for both rulers given Stalin's paranoia and his purging of his own ranks. And for Pekkala to occupy both roles one would expect him to be a much more ruthless, rather than being a sympathetic character. Oddly, Stalin is also written as a somewhat grouchy uncle, rather than a tyrant, and a number of other characters run against type. The story itself jaunts along, but becomes increasingly ragged as the book progresses. It is set up as a locked room mystery, but unfortunately did not really work like one. The last fifty pages were simply fantastical and I struggled through them as the book hurtled to an improbable end. This was a real shame as Eastland demonstrates throughout the novel that he has the storytelling ability to tell an engaging yarn. For the book to work as a whole, however, that storytelling had to be consistent and convincing. Passable.

3 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Rob - Sorry this disappointed you. I know what you mean, though, about the need for an historical novel to ring true...

Uriah Robinson said...

Rob-I haven't read this one but the idea of any group loyal to the Tsar being still active after Stalin's purges is indeed fantastical.

Bernadette said...

I had a similar reaction to the first book in this series Rob. Nicholas II featured heavily but no hint of his anti-semetic, mass murdering ways....I find that kind of alternative history to border on the offensive