Dryden, Alex - 'Death in Siberia'
"The "baba" had twinkling eyes, grey hair under a scarf and she smiled toothlessly in gratitude at the few kopecks. Anna stood by the stall and chatted to her, ate the apple, looked back carefully in the direction from where she'd come, and then went on towards the rail yards."
One night in late May three men and a woman drive towards the mountains that mark the Mongolian Russian border. The woman is Anna Resnikov, the star covert agent in the world's largest private intelligence agency. At an arranged pick-up point Anna leaves her escort, shoulders her heavy pack and switches to one of the sturdy Mongolian horses waiting for her. Then she rides on towards the isolated mountain gorge which she will use to enter Russia. In the shadow of the mountains Anna dismounts, taps the horse on the rump as instructed and watches it turn and trot back into the darkness. Unpacking her climbing gear she starts up the steep rock faces that lead to the old frontier fort marking her crossing point into Russian Siberia. From there she must start her long journey to the city of Krasnoyarsk, the first stage in her journey north.
A day or so later Militsiya Lieutenant Alexei Petrov breakfasts on tinned fish in his tiny apartment in Krasnoyarsk. His breakfast is interrupted by his corporal's phone call detailing the nightly report, finishing with the news that a body has been discovered in a rubbish-strewn alley in the same city quarter as Petrov's apartment. Ordering the area to be sealed, Petrov sets off to the alleyway. The body is that of a man, foreign dental work, well-dressed, and in his pocket is an airline ticket from the day before - a flight from the militarily-secured city of Norilsk above the Arctic Circle to Krasnoyarsk. Finding the dead man's passport solves the mystery of his identity. The greater mystery is how a German professor comes to be lying dead in a slum alleyway in Siberia, executed Mafia style by a single shot to the back of his neck, wallet emptied, and every seam of his expensive clothing slit open to the lining in an expert search. But unlike Petrov the killers had neglected the stitching in the dead professor's shoes where Petrov uncovers a package of pages covered in scientific formulae. And something makes Petrov pocket his find before he reports the death of the foreigner.
Murder marks the start of DEATH IN SIBERIA but the novel is a spy thriller rather than a crime story. There is a policeman at the core of DEATH IN SIBERIA: Alexei Petrov, half Russian, half Siberian Evenk. But there is also a deadly secret agent, Anna Resnikov, Russian and an ex-KGB colonel now working for the West. Lieutenant Petrov knows that he has gone as far up the career ladder as he, a part-native, can expect and this places him neatly on the outside of the system, alongside so many investigative policemen in crime fiction. His Evenk shaman grandfather is dying in the northern tribal territory and Petrov finds himself at a crossroads in his life. He knows that he will not be allowed to investigate the death of a foreigner. He decides instead to travel north to his grandfather but out of curiosity and intuition carries with him the papers that he found on the body. Unwittingly he is following Anna into the Siberian Arctic where their paths will cross.
Although this is the fourth title in Alex Dryden's "Anna Resnikov" series, DEATH IN SIBERIA works well as a standalone read. Dryden is skilful in his background writing and manages never to slow the pace of the book with his introduction of character details and chronologies. From the outset the book presents a context of "post-Soviet" Russia dominated by Putin's secretive ex-KGB oligarchy; its economic dependency on fuel and energy assets; its subsequent race alongside other nations for the untapped oil and mineral resources of the Arctic. A writer and journalist with years of experience in international security and an intimate knowledge of Russia, Dryden writes a detailed, gritty and convincing setting for the thriller; life in Siberia, the one-time outpost of the Stalinist penal system with its slave-built cities and factories, pollution, poverty and decay, and too the dwindling future of its native people the Evenk. DEATH IN SIBERIA is an absorbing book with a convincing setting, well-drawn characters, and an exciting chase that carries us from the bleak and decrepit Siberian city-slums into the ice, wilderness, and perpetual daylight of the Arctic summer. Not crime fiction as such but a definite thriller.
Lynn Harvey, England
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.