Eastland, Sam - 'Siberian Red'
It's September 1939. Stalin summons Special Investigator Inspector Pekkala to his office. Germany's invasion of Poland, aided by Stalinís own Soviet forces pushing from the east, has brought war to Europe. But Stalin has chosen this moment to send Inspector Pekkala to Siberia, sending him to the same camp where he had been imprisoned for many years because of his role in the Imperial regime; Pekkala had also been the Tsar's special investigator. Stalin explains that this time Pekkala will not be a prisoner. Pekkala is to investigate a killing. The murder victim was a survivor of the Tsar's Kolchak expedition, an elite corps of Tsarist loyalists chosen to escort the Imperial gold to safety as the Empire fell to the Bolsheviks. Since their capture in 1920, the survivors have been imprisoned in Borodok labour camp. Now one of them has been murdered and Stalin wants to know who killed him. The victim had been about to give up information concerning the whereabouts of Colonel Kolchak, long thought of as dead. Pekkala asks Stalin why he is so concerned to capture Kolchak. Why send an investigator after Kolchak rather than an assassin? Stalin replies that Kolchak is a great threat to the state and only Pekkala is capable of bringing him to justice. In order to do so however Pekkala must go undercover. The next day, dressed only in flimsy prison clothes, Pekkala boards the transport train to Siberia and begins his nightmare journey back into the frozen world of his past as a camp inmate. In the following days Stalin grows increasingly impatient for news of Pekkala's progress and we begin to wonder if the pursuit of justice and the safety of the State is all that Stalin has on his mind.
Sam Eastland is the pseudonym of a British born US-based novelist; SIBERIAN RED is his third novel featuring Inspector Pekkala, Finnish-born special investigator to Stalin. I am a fan of Philip Kerr's "Bernie Gunther" series featuring another investigator whose life and work straddles the conflicting regimes of twentieth century Europe, in Gunther's case this is Germany before and after World War II. So I was eager to read this book. But SIBERIAN RED is not the same kind of crime story. Its protagonist, Pekkala, has indeed worked both sides of the fence, initially as Investigator to the Tsar and later, after many years in prison, brought back by Stalin to work for him in a very similar role. However, Pekkala's character seems to be "above" his political surroundings rather than struggling to find a way through them. He is a "hero" not an "Everyman". Legendary as an investigator, known as "The Emerald Eye", he is a figure of awe to those within Stalin's security system, to survivors of the Imperial period and - in SIBERIAN RED - to the nomads of Siberia as well.
There is no doubt that Eastland does his historical research; using a flashback technique throughout the series to move the reader between Pekkala's days in the Tsarist regime and Stalinist Russia. Stalin as a cold political manipulator is revealed in the opening passages of SIBERIAN RED with references to his knowledge of the Gleiwitz incident, a staged invasion of German territory by faked Polish forces which subsequently enabled the Nazi regime to justify its own invasion of Poland. But despite this historical detail I was not absorbed into the feel of the times. I was left with a picture of Stalin which seemed to devote as much detail to his delight in practical jokes such as sawing the legs off his secretary's desk. For me Stalin remained a figure in another room despite his role as Inspector Pekkala's patron, and therefore one whose motives and whims could decide Pekkala's life or death.
It may be that my own preference for a more "hard-boiled" socio-political thriller such as Philip Kerr's "Bernie Gunther" series, or Olen Steinhauer's books set behind the Iron Curtain of Cold War Europe, gets in the way of my assessment. It may also be that Eastland's books benefit from being read in sequence. But I think that ultimately it is a question of preference in Euro-Crime tastes. Eastland's Pekkala is a "hero" and there is no doubt that there are strong Pekkala fans. He inhabits an almost military world of crime solving within a historical setting. So if you enjoy historical mysteries or military thrillers - then SIBERIAN RED and the others in Sam Eastland's "Pekkala" series could well be for you.
Lynn Harvey, England