Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Russia- The New Hot Setting for Crime Fiction?

Watch out Scandinavia! Judging from some of the excellent books I've been reading lately, books set in Russia are poised to become the next hot (pun intended) setting for crime novels!

First up is the FABULOUS book Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith- a 28 year old debut novelist from Britain. I literally could not put this book down! I had been invited to dinner at my sister's house and with only two chapters left to go, I called her and said I'd have to cancel unless she let me come with my book. I finished it while dinner was being prepared. Very rude of me, I know, but my sister is an avid reader as well, so she forgave me as long as I promised to leave the book behind for her to read. The book is set in Stalin-era Soviet Union, a worker's paradise where crime can not exist (according to the State) and where even the slightest suspicion of disloyalty can land you in prison. MGB (State Security) officer Leo Demidov is a former war hero and is a firm believer in both the State and its ideology. One of his duties is quelling dissident talk, a duty that puts him in a difficult position when a fellow MGB officer named Fyodor insists that his son was murdered not killed in an accident as the State claims. Leo manages to convince him to keep quiet, but Fyodor's conviction stays with him. When a jealous colleague's scheming results in Leo's transfer to a remote militia outpost,he discovers that a local child has recently been found dead, in a manner strikingly similar to Fyodor's child. Leo investigates and discovers to his horror that Fyodor's child was the forty-fourth victim of a serial killer that is preying on children along the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Determined to redeem himself for not believing Fyodor, Leo continues to investigate the murders against his employer's orders. Branded an enemy of the State, his mission becomes complicated as he has to elude his former colleagues in order to bring the murderer to justice.

Child 44 is an amazing first novel and is bound to be compared to Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park. The pacing is incredible and the book is, as I've attested, very hard to put down. I loved both the characters and the history that is woven into the story, which paints a very scary and grim portrait of the era. Since I've read it, the book has received starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist. Child 44 releases at the end of April, so make sure you go to your local library site after finishing this post so you can be first on the holds list! Other interesting notes- the killer in the book is loosely based on a real serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo, and the film rights have already been sold to Ridley Scott.

Also out at the end of April is Vodka Neat by Anna Blundy, a former Moscow Bureau Chief for the London Times. Vodka Neat introduces a great character, Faith Zanetti. Faith is a foreign correspondent who likes her vodka neat (and plentiful), and dislikes those who stand between her and getting a good story. Years ago, Faith was married to a Russian black marketer named Dimitri. When her boss at her newspaper find out that she speaks fluent Russian, Faith is assigned to cover the Moscow desk. She's returned to Moscow many times since she left Dimitri, so is quite surprised when she is arrested shortly after her arrival. Unbeknownst to Faith, Dimitri confessed to a brutal dual murder shortly after she left the country and is now saying that in fact it was Faith who was responsible. Faith is pretty certain she didn't kill two people with an ax, but if the truth be told, she was pretty drunk the night in question and doesn't remember much of anything. Trying to sort out the mess, she uncovers a web of lies and cover ups leading right back to her former husband. The story is told partly in flashbacks of her courtship and short marriage to Dimitri in the late 1980s, and the comparison of Moscow at the height of the Cold War and the Moscow of today is very striking. I love the character of Faith, who has many personal issues to deal with but is strong, intelligent and funny.

If you can't wait for either of these two books, then go and pick up a copy of Volk's Game by Brent Ghelfi, which was one of my Dewey picks last Spring. Set in modern-day Moscow, Volk's Game stars a dark anti-hero named Alexei Volkovoy. Volk survived a childhood spent in orphanages, fought in the Chechnyan war and now runs a black market operation dealing in ammunition, pornography and drugs under a mafia kingpin named Maxim. And unknown to anyone, he also works for the shadowy General as a covert military agent to whom he is somehow indebted. When both men ask Volk to steal a Da Vinci painting called Leda and the Swans from the catacombs under the Hermitage Museum, he faces a dilemma- which master will he turn the painting over to? But when the operation goes horribly wrong, has more pressing matters on his mind. Someone set him up and he needs to figure out who did so in order to escape with his life. Volk is a great complex character- able to kill without hesitation, but secretly supporting soldier's widows and protecting children from exploitation. Volk's lover and bodyguard, Valya, is also fantastic- fierce, cold and fragile with secrets of her own. The book has lots of twists, fast pacing and great descriptions of the city. A sequel, called Volk's Shadow, is coming out in July. I can't wait to read it as it takes Volk back to Chechnya, so I'm hoping I'll get to find out more about this character's background.

Happy reading!

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