It might be thought that all the books about the problems of law and order in communist and post-glasnost Russia have already been written. Didn’t Martin Cruz Smith corner the market with his accounts of Arcady Renko and his tussles with the authorities? Or what about Boris Starling and Vodka, his tale of gangsters and oligarchs in a Russia struggling to come to terms with the free market?
Jack Grimwood’s Moskva sets out to convince us that there is room for one more tale of conflicted lives in a modern Russia full of paradox and uncertainty. The book came out in hardback earlier this year, and is now available in paperback, from Penguin. Does Grimwood, who made his name writing science fiction and fantasy novels, hit the spot?
Tom Fox is one of those rough, tough individuals who is paid by men in suits to go to dangerous places and do unpleasant things for Queen and Country. He has, however, been doubly traumatised: firstly, a tour of duty working undercover in the bitter sectarian war in Northern Ireland has left him psychologically scarred; secondly, his marriage is pretty much over after his teenage daughter drove her Mini into a tree at 80 mph. Suicide? Drugs? No-one knows for sure, but the blame game has been played to its conclusion, and Fox has lost. Now, in the winter of 1986, his instability is such that his paymasters and handlers in London have packed him off to Moscow, ostensibly to write a report on the state of religion in Gorbachev’s Russia but, in reality, he has been sent far away to keep him out of trouble.
As soon as Fox makes the acquaintance of ambassador Sir Edward Marston and his wife, he is left in little doubt that he is as welcome as a man with something vile on the sole of his shoe trampling over the embassy Axminster. At a reception Fox meets Sir Edward’s fifteen year-old step-daughter Alex and, noticing that she has self harm marks on her lower arms, makes a flippant remark which he soon has cause to regret.
“Beneath her cuffs, not quite visible and not quite hidden, raw welts crossed both wrists. A blunt knife would do it.
‘What’s it got to do with you anyway?’
‘Wrist to elbow,’ he said.’Wrist to elbow. If you’re serious.’”
Despite their disdain for Fox, Sir Edward and his wife Anna soon have need of his rough talents when Alex goes missing. There is no ransom note, and no apparent motive except a possible link with the body of a dead boy found frozen in the snow near The Kremlin. Fox is an excellent linguist, and his near-perfect Russian enables him to ‘go native’ in the search for Alex.
His investigation takes him to a back street drinking den run by Dennisov – a one-legged veteran of Russia’s Afghanistan war – and his sister Yelena. Their father is a distinguished veteran of that most blood-stained period in modern history which ran from 22nd June 1941 to 9th May 1945, known with reverence by many Russians as The Great Patriotic War. The further Fox digs into the mystery of Alex’s abduction, the more he realises that there is a motive – but one which has deep roots in the days and deeds of April 1945 when the Russians unleashed 20 armies, 6,300 tanks and 8,500 aircraft to crush the defenders of Berlin.
The breadth of this novel in terms of time sometimes makes it hard to work out who has done what to whom. Patience – and a spot of back-tracking – will pay dividends, however, and the narrative provides a salutary reminder of the sheer magnitude of the numbers of Russian dead in WWII, and the resultant near-psychosis about The West. To top-and-tail this review and answer the earlier question as to whether Jack Grimwood (right) “hits the spot”, I can give a resounding “Yes!”. Yes, the plot is complex, and yes, you will need your wits about you, but yes, it’s a riveting read; yes, Tom Fox is a flawed but engaging central character, and yes, Grimwood has sharp-elbowed his way into the line-up of novelists who have written convincing crime novels set in the enigma that is Russia.