White Russian, by Tom Bradby, is a book by a man for men. It has all the elements of an action movie, with plenty of exciting moments (everything but a chase scene, but there are scenes where the protagonist is being followed). Still, it lacked something: maybe heart.
The books takes place immediately before the Russian Revolution in Petersburg. The leading man is a disgraced noble who has just spent three years in exile in Siberia. He returns to his unhappy family and his job as a homicide investigator. His wife is cheating on him and his young son, at first, barely recognizes him. To top that off, he wants to resume an affair with a woman who has taken up with someone close to him. All in all, especially in view of Russia’s political system at the time, it’s a recipe for disaster.
It’s also the recipe for the book. One disaster after another is narrowly avoided. He even manages to get through a couple of interviews with the disgraced Tsarina without it coming back to haunt him. Far-fetched, yes, but plenty of winning books are far-fetched. It’s a narrowness of view, something like a 21st century depressive man plopped down in the middle of Tsarist Russia.
The book starts with two grisly murders, and Sandro Ruzsky and his dogged partner, Pavel are out to investigate. Soon there is another murder, and then another, all killed in the same way, by multiple stab wounds. Who could be responsible?
There aren’t a lot of faux suspects in this book and not too many red herrings either. Rather, we are led, step by step, to what appears at the end to be an inescapable conclusion. If I read more mysteries I probably would have guessed who was responsible for the deaths but I have to confess I did not. Still, the ending seemed to come all at once. I felt a little cheated.
This is a well-written novel by a respected journalist in the U.K. Still, it bothered me that the woman Ruzsky is in love with is something of a stick figure — beautiful but unfaithful. It is a trap many male authors fall into, and I was surprised to see that Bradby had written an earlier book in which a woman was the protagonist. That book is out of print, but it would be interesting to see if he handles her better than the women in this book.
Another problem: I had a little difficulty dating the police officers in this book. Since I am such a fan of Philip Kerr, I kept thinking of Kerr’s depictions of police in Nazi-era Germany, and, in a sense, had trouble distinguishing this book from those. I would have enjoyed seeing more details of how police were hamstrung in 1917 Russia. I’m sure they were.
But there is plenty of information about the tsarina and Rasputin, and the author includes actual letters she wrote to Rasputin. So, the external stuff about the Russian Revolution is right — I just wasn’t feeling it. In other reviews, some people loved this book and other people hated it. I find myself in the middle.