Red Icon by Sam Eastland (2015)
It’s Moscow in 1944, and the Soviets are at last in the ascendancy during the war. The Nazi menace is fighting a vicious rearguard action as the Reds force a bloody path to Berlin. During the many smaller sporadic skirmishes in Eastern Germany, two Russian tank crew members take shelter in a crypt where they find a painting, a sacred Russian icon, that was last seen in the possession of Rasputin before it was stolen and believed destroyed. The men quickly return it to the Kremlin.
Stalin summons his number one investigator, Inspector Pekkala, to look into how this holy painting, The Shepherd, got to Germany. The Russian leader wishes to present the discovery as propaganda demonstrating the unstoppable nature of the Soviet Union. However, Stalin is a canny devil, and wants to avoid any nasty surprises regarding the icon. To this end, he needs answers immediately and Pekkala is the man he believes can provide them.
Pekkala is no stranger to The Shepherd. As a former private investigator to Tsar Nicholas II, the wily Finn was responsible for all of the more delicate matters that the Emperor needed attended to. Known as The Emerald Eye, Pekkala was both admired and feared through the Russian Empire. When The Shepherd first went missing from the home of Rasputin, Pekkala was dispatched to find it. Although he was hot on the trail of the thief, the Tsar inexplicably pulled Pekkala from the case and ordered no further investigation. So it was that The Shepherd was gone, believed burned by a member of a religious cult who was arrested and imprisoned. Pekkala was not so sure of his guilt.
Many of you may be wondering how the pet detective of the Tsar managed to not only survive the Bolshevik purges of the Royal family and their advocates, but also to assume a favoured position within the new regime. Good question. The answer is that Pekkala is the best at what he does and Stalin knows it, although Pekkala did spend time in a gulag.
During his second investigation into The Shepherd, he visits the only person alive known to have been in contact with the painting. Unfortunately, Pekkala’s visit to the jailed holy man raises even more questions and ends with the murder of the monk by person or persons unknown. The method employed for the killing is poison, a very potent one not known to Russia’s chemists. The existence of such a toxin is a cause of great concern to Stalin as it could have profound implications for the outcome of the war and so Pekkala is tasked with a secondary investigation. Find who administered the poison and who made it. No pressure then, on our capable detective.
As the story in 1944/45 progresses, we are also taken back to 1914 where we meet a much younger, but still influential, Pekkala in the company of the Russian royals. It’s at this time that we also come to understand why The Shepherd was first stolen, and the role Rasputin had in the theft. It makes for interesting reading. The Bolsheviks are agitating and time is running out for Tsar Nicholas II and his family, yet living in a bubble as they do means that they can’t see the writing on the palace wall (metaphor galore). The First World War is ongoing, placing great stress on the Tsar and his German bride. Russia is in a state of flux. Pekkala appears to be the only constant. He follows orders and investigates, as the nation’s religious fanatics become ever more extreme.
The plot moves effortlessly from one period to the next, setting a comfortable pace. Whether it’s the monks, the Bolsheviks, Stalin, Germans, Russians, in one era or another, the characters are consistent and believable, and Pekkala is always there. The settings move from Moscow to Petrograd to Eastern Germany to Siberia, but are always emotive and vivid. The author clearly knows his subject and takes great delight in drawing the reader into his passion.
The Inspector Pekkala series is a joy. It’s a welcome change to the more usual locations of the US or, to a lesser extent, the UK. Russia is a vast and complex nation with a gloriously rich and intriguing history and culture. This series of books is a fine introduction to that. Although certain liberties may have been taken with historical fact, it’s fairly inconsequential in terms of the plot and, all-in-all, the story-line is strong and very solid.
Pekkala is the Russian equivalent of Sherlock Holmes and their timelines would have intersected (what a novel that would make). In 1944, Pekkala’s Watson is Major Kirov, a mild-mannered gent married to feisty, beautiful Elizaveta – just as the quiet friend of Holmes had his own wife. The similarities in approach to solving crime are also remarkable. This is not a criticism, as the settings are so different as to strongly blur the resemblance. But it’s there.
Red Icon is a great read; hard to put down and an appetizer for more. Rebel Voice is a fan of the series and believes that you will be too if you read this book. Inspector Pekkala is destined to be one of the more highly acclaimed fictional detectives of literature, and Sam Eastland one of the more lauded authors.
Sult scale rating: 7.5 out of 10. Holmes in Russia, the Pekkala series spans the traumatic changes that gripped Russia from before the Bolshevik revolution, on through the Second World War and the torrid time of Stalin. It’s highly recommended.