Feeling somewhat inspired by the start of the FIFA World Cup today which is, of course, being held in Russia I figured I’d take a look at some crime fiction from the region. My choice turned out to be quite simple – I had previously enjoyed an Akashic Noir collection of short stories based in Prague and when I saw this collection set in Moscow I couldn’t help but jump at the chance to pick it up.
The collection is much more uneven than Prague Noir and there are several stories that I think would be a stretch to consider as falling within the traditional scope of the genre. The tone of some stories is more grim and depressing than it is cynical or mysterious. I found the third part of the collection featuring stories with a father and son component to be particularly rough reading.
Still, there are some points of interest in the collection. Looking at it as a whole, I am particularly struck by how it is the shortest stories here that seem the most fresh, bold and interesting. There we see often impressionistic touches in the prose or plotting and some really impressive exploration of theme. In particular, I would recommend In the New Development and The Point of No Return as highlights. I just wish that the collection overall had been a little more consistent in quality.
Part I: Crime and Punishment
“The Mercy Bus” by Anna Starobinets (Kursk Station)
In the opening story of the collection, a man waits for a bus to arrive in the hopes of evading a criminal gang and the police until morning. In the course of the story we learn what he is running from and learn how things will play out for him.
Some aspects of this story were quite successful, not least the explanation of what had happened prior to the start, but the ending is unlikely to surprise.
“Gold and Heroin” by Vyacheslav Kuritsyn (Leningradsky Avenue)
I admire some of the choices that Kuritsyn makes with this story about an underworld figure who falls in love with an addict and decides that he wishes to quit the game. I like that it takes some unexpected directions and packs an intriguing resolution. Length-wise it is absolutely ideal, structured to develop and communicate an idea with broad yet precise story beats. My problem is that the prose feels overworked and too consciously trying to blend literary and street styles that it ends up feeling unsatisfactory as either. Still, it is about a fifth of the length of the previous story and I have written about five times more commentary which I think shows that I found it a more interesting and provocative read.
“In the New Development” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (Prazhkaya)
This is one of the shortest stories in the collection but its brevity allows it to be as punchy as it is provocative and unsettling.
The piece concerns a man who accidentally impregnated a girlfriend and was forced into a shotgun marriage. The wife’s parents provided for the couple but placed everything under her name, ensuring that on her death it would all revert to them. Petrushevskaya makes an analogy to them ‘winding the coil’, ensuring that at some point the coil would snap back, releasing all of the pressure they had worked into it.
Given the constraints the author places themselves under, I was delighted by the surprising but truthful character moments they are able to work into the piece. As a piece of psychological crime writing, I think it is masterful and I’d consider it among the highlights of the collection.
“Wait” by Andrei Khusnutdinov (Babushkinskaya)
A hitman on the run hides out in a room shared with a prostitute who appears to be in deep trouble herself.
I am not entirely sure how I feel about this one. I certainly found it quite compelling on a plotting level, particularly a lengthy action sequence, and while it is quite predictable, I responded to the ending. On the other hand, a sex scene seems to go on forever and in far more detail than was needed to advance the plot or establish the themes of the piece. Overall I think it is a successful piece but not necessarily to my own tastes.
Part II: Dead Souls
“Field of a Thousand Corpses” by Alexander Anuchkin (Elk Island)
I wish I had a stronger reaction to this one because it is one of the more substantial pieces in the collection, at least in terms of page count.
What I can say is that this is one of the more successful stories in terms of conveying something about its setting and making it intrinsically important to the story as a whole. Here the narrator who is a policeman goes with colleagues to an area of Elk Island that had historically fallen between jurisdictions of the various police forces making it a hotbed for crime. The story seemed to sag for me though and I simply didn’t find the protagonist interesting.
“Pure Ponds, Dirty Sex, or Two Army Buddies Meet” by Vladimir Tuchkov (Pure Ponds)
I have seen the idea of a battle royale between hitmen done before but this is one of the stronger treatments of that concept. Some of Moscow’s richest and most powerful citizens have arranged for a game where a group of hitmen agree to try to track each other down to kill them. Each player has a camera attached to them which allows the other players to see where they are though not their identity.
Tuchkov comes up with a clever twist on the idea that I think mostly works well and amplifies the core themes of the drama. I was less than comfortable however with a short rape sequence (of sorts). This is one of those cases where I understand its importance to the story but I did find it a little off-putting.
“Decameron” by Igor Zotov (Silver Pine Forest)
This piece features a man going to a location where someone had been tortured and running into a woman he knew and lusted after as a teen. What follows mixes present day and flashback, building up our understanding of these characters.
Writing about sex and lust is difficult but while I think Zotov creates a believable character, I did not find them interesting or compelling. Some of the references feel like they are there primarily to shock or discomfort the reader though I did not think they managed to do so while the story feels increasingly unfocused. A real disappointment.
“The Doppelgänger” by Gleb Shulpyakov (Zamoskvorechye)
An aging actor catches sight of a man who looks like a younger version of himself in the street. This story cultivates a mysterious air but it would be a stretch to call it a mystery. Still, there is something about the way it develops and the way that encounter sets a chain of events in motion that made it one of the more satisfying reads in the collection for me.
Part III: Fathers and Sons
“Daddy Loves Me” by Maxim Maximov (Perovo)
This desperately sad, sordid tale about a woman who hates living and comes to want her aging father to die made for tough reading. Unlike some of the other more explicit stories in the collection, I think that this style was needed to tell this story effectively and to fully explore some of its themes but it was too much for me.
“Christmas” by Irina Denezhikina (New Arbat)
Another slice of grim reading, this time about a woman whose pocket is picked on her way home from work leaving her penniless. Throughout the story we get snippets of a really grotesque narrative that plays into the theme of this section. This is undoubtedly effective in accomplishing the author’s concept and I do think it is far more interesting than the previous story but once again I found the tone to make this a very difficult and upsetting read.
“The Point of No Return” by Sergei Samsonov (Ostankino)
An excellent story about two students, both writers, who live together in a dorm room. At the start of the tale nothing seems to be going right for the narrator while his roommate is wildly popular and has no difficulty attracting success.
What I like most about this story is the way that our understanding of these characters and their relationship changes as we read. Samsonov does a superb job of introducing several developments that send the story in new, unexpected directions and I think the resolution is really interesting. One of the highlights of the book for me.
Part IV: War and Peace
“The Coat that Smelled Like Earth” by Dmitry Kosyrev (Birch Grove Park)
The final section of the book begins with this story about a therapist who is meeting with a troubled teenage girl. Looking to shock him, the girl tells him about a paid sexual encounter she had with an older man in a heavy coat that smelled of earth and moss. He is appalled that she would have put herself in such a dangerous position and later goes to speak with the police where he learns of similar tales going back a number of years. The story is well told with a chilling ending.
“Europe After the Rain” by Alexei Evdokimov (Kiev Station)
I found this to be a somewhat messy tale, largely because of its structure which makes it a little hard to follow. One section is told in the first person about a man meeting an old acquaintance and her partner when they visit Moscow and taking them to see the sights, the other is told in the third person and follows an investigation into an incident.
I did find the history of the Square of Europe and some of the architecture to be interesting though.
“Moscow Reincarnations” by Sergei Kuznetsov (Lubyanka)
The final story in the collection takes some time to come into focus but I was intrigued by its subject matter and themes. What we get are several accounts of lives stretching back to the Russian civil war. The reincarnations of the title may be literal but they are also a commentary on the various transformations Russia underwent in the course of a century. The tone is, once again, bleak in spots but it makes for a thoughtful conclusion to this collection.