Title: Moskva; Author: Jack Grimwood; Publisher: Michael Joseph/Penguin Random House; Pages: 477; Price: Rs 599
As 1985 ends in Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev, who has just been in power for a few months now, is still far from secure in his post. And when the naked body of a child is found near the Kremlin, it sets in motion one of the biggest challenges to his authority, with one of his adversaries, threatened by old secrets, capable of going to any length to save himself – including threatening the British envoy’s step-daughter.
It is this plot and setting that British writer Jack Grimwood, a pen name adopted by literary and historical fiction writer Jon Courtenay Grimwood, for his first, but most atmospheric and grimly ominous, thriller. And he unforgettably portrays the Soviet Union, bleak, brutal, difficult to comprehend or deal with, even as it begins its long walk out of the cold.
His protagonist is a British soldier, who has been posted to Moscow to prevent his appearance before a parliamentary committee in connection with a scandalous operation – hinted at being an assassination of terrorists in a friendly country.
But Army Intelligence Officer Tom Fox, who is put on the trail of the missing girl, is himself battling his disintegrating marriage and his own demons, and barely trusted by the parents for giving the headstrong teenager practical instructions in committing suicide, after noticing the barely-healed cuts on her wrists.
Taking up the mission, he soon picks up an eclectic collection of allies. Apart from Ivan Denisov, a crippled Afghan War veteran who now runs a bar and his surly sister who markedly disapproves of Fox, there is a top gangster, whose two young sons are missing – one of whom is the boy dead in the beginning, a mysterious old woman beggar, with a penchant for appearing at most trouble spots where Fox is, and the attractive but tough Major Svetlana Milova of the Vnutrenniye Voiska (the elite paramilitary unit of the Internal Affairs Ministry), who is more than what she seems.
She also has a grandfather, who is a war hero and a Politburo member to boot, and like his country, most oblique.
And playing an unknown role are two other politburo members – one with a son accustomed to power and privilege and supposedly chasing the missing girl while the other turns out to be the estranged father of Fox’s bartender friend.
Further complicating the matter is an unknown sadistic killer who announces his presence by visiting Fox’s apartment and leaving an umistakable ‘calling card’.
What do her kidnappers want for the girl, how far can Fox trust his friends and what are their real motives are some of the questions he will grapple with for long as bodies keep popping up, a raid goes tragically wrong, he faces multiple threats to his life, which is anyway unravelling, and his own side have considerable misgivings about him and at one point, order him home.
And the most puzzling issue of how the experiences of some of the characters, including the envoy, Milova’s grandfather, the other Soviet leaders and the gangster, in the Second World War overshadow in the present day sequence of events is chillingly brought out as the story builds up to a tense climax in an abandoned abattoir in the Crimea.
Grimwood, whose work is also a historical novel and a story of redemption and second chances – for a lot of characters, provides a remarkable picture of the Soviet Union moving from the depressing stagnation of the Brezhnev era and his two short-lived successors – Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko (who, unlike his predecessor, did not have a KGB background, as a character mistakenly tells Fox) to some hope under Gorbachev.
But, his main but uncomfortable motif is the impact of the savage Russian-German conflict in World War II in imposing its own standards of brutality on some men who fought them and which can never be eradicated even when peace returned.
It may upset the squeamish – or the jingoistic but that is what wars can do.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)