Our local library recently acquired some new audiobooks on CD, and the slightly broader selection now available is quite welcome to me. I reluctantly passed up a Dean Koontz novel because the unabridged version (which I always far prefer over an abridged version) takes some thirty hours to listen to – far more than the total time I spend in my car over the six weeks I can keep a book I’ve checked out.
Instead, I picked a book by an author I’d never heard of, Sam Eastland. (I learned from reading reviews that this is a pseudonym of a British writer, but no one is letting on who the author really is.) The Eye of the Red Tsar is both historical fiction and a mystery, both genres that I particularly enjoy. Inspector Pekkala is unlike any characters I’ve encountered previously in detective fiction, and I enjoyed the book thoroughly.
Most of the historical fiction I have read has been set in Western Europe, the U.S., or the Near East. I have read a few novels set in Russia, but if any were historical fiction, it was either from a time much earlier than or much later than the Bolshevik Revolution. I knew virtually nothing of Tsar Nicholas II, and all I knew about the death of the tsar and his family was that rumors persisted for decades that one of his daughters had survived.
The central character of the novel (and, apparently, of the books to follow in the series) is a Finnish-born man who had been chosen by the tsar to be “the Emerald Eye.” Pekkala is a rare man, both because of his virtually perfect memory for detail, and more importantly because he is incorruptible. With the tsar’s own secret police force riddled by spies, Nicholas wants a man whom he can trust completely. Inspector Pekkala is given absolute authority, and he quickly becomes a legend for his skill and his sense of justice.
Usually I prefer the protagonist of a novel to have some shortcoming he struggles with – otherwise he seems too good to be real. But Eastland has created in Pekkala a convincing portrait of a man immune to the temptations of riches or power. It is not that he is so saintly that he resists such temptations – rather they hold no appeal to him so they do not tempt him at all.
As his brother is of a quite different character, it’s not clear what made them so different. I know that siblings can be very different, but much of the differences can usually be traced to personality and formative influences. There are a few hints given of pivotal events, but I didn’t find these entirely convincing.
That didn’t detract from my enjoying the novel, however. Besides Pekkala and the other two primary characters, there is quite a cast of men and women who show many sides to Russian life during that tumultuous era. I had always thought of the conflict as an ideological one, between Marxists and the Russian nobility, but most people caught up in the struggle were probably mostly interested simply in survival.
One man feigns madness in order to be left alone, others cooperate with the regime but secretly despise it. In the flashbacks that tell Pekkala’s history, we see even Tsar Nicholas wishing for a simpler life rather than the imperial role thrust on him. One review I read of the book questioned where the tsar could really have been the good-hearted man depicted in the novel, but based on this description of his character, it seems quite believable.
The central question, which Pekkala has been rescued from Siberia to find the answer to, is whether all of the Romanovs are dead and who killed them. Gradually it becomes apparent that of at least equal importance is what happened to the tsar’s great wealth. People will gladly kill for a chance to get their hands on the vast treasure of gold that the tsar hid, and that Pekkala is assumed to know where to find.
I am not surprised to read that the actual details of the death of the tsar and his family are not as the book depict them. But enough of the details are correct (down to the Ipatiev house where they were being held prisoner), and enough questions have been raised as to the possibility of one or more of them surviving, that it does not take too much of a stretch to imagine Eastland’s version. After all, the Soviets were masters at spreading misinformation. (The “Red Tsar” of the title is Joseph Stalin, who makes a couple of appearances in the novel.)
Some reviews question the believability of the ending, both in the solution to the mystery of the killings, and where Pekkala ends up after he solves the case. But I think they simply add greater complexity to Pekkala’s character. And the ending sets things up for another book in the series, which I look forward to reading when it comes out.