Friday, July 17, 2020

Review of Red Square by Edward Topol and Fridrikh Neznansky (1983, Corgi)

A special investigator for the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, Shamrayev is taking a break in Sochi on the Black Sea when he is urgently recalled to Moscow investigate the suspicious death of Semen Tsvigun, the Deputy Director of the KGB and Brezhnev’s brother-in-law. The KGB have quickly commissioned an autopsy, declared the death a suicide, and arranged for Tsvigun’s burial. Shamrayev soon finds his avenues of inquiry being actively blocked by very senior figures across security and police agencies, with not so subtle threats being delivered to drop the case. A massive round up of senior post holders across multiple agencies involved in the black market is taking place, and Tsvigun’s death is being used to move against Brezhnez’s family, who seem to be at the heart of the lucrative trading, and to conduct a political coup. Shamrayev is not prepared to let murder slide and he has a letter from Brezhnev that provides him with the power to demand whatever is required to solve Tsvigun’s death and protect the head of state from scandal.

Topol and Neznansky’s tale spins the actual reported suicide of Tsvigun by imagining it as murder, populating the story with numerous real-world characters and scandal relating to ‘Brezhnev’s mafia’, which led a high life in Moscow on the back of black market profiteering. Novelist and screenwriter, Topol provides the engaging narrative, while authenticity in the police procedural and internal politics between state agencies is added through Neznansky’s insider knowledge gleaned as an experienced Soviet prosecutor before emigrating to the United States. The result is a political thriller meets police procedural in which the stark realities of Soviet life in the Brezhnev era is revealed: from the heavy state hand, paranoia, discipline and punishment, everyday resistance, black market, political corruption, and institutional rivalries. Added into the mix is anti-Semitism and rampant misogyny. The authors keep the story moving at a brisk pace with plenty of intrigue, tension, and attention to detail as Shamrayev tries to uncover who killed Tsgivun, what game is really being played out, and to actively intervene. It leads to a nice denouement and a couple of good twists, keeping the ‘what really did happen’ framing active to the final line.

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