The Setting: USSR, in the time just before the Second World War.
Story: Inspector Pekkala, the Finnish born former tsarist favorite is now Stalin’s favorite inspector. The Soviet leader is worried about the Germans getting hold of the T-34 tank plans, and Pekkala is instructed to stop any leak. His visit to the T-34 test plant becomes the start of a murder investigation.
Good Stuff: The opening is taut, tense and troubling. There are some good plot ideas which promise much. For example, the involvement of the NKVD Major Lysenkova hints at an interesting development (Unfortunately, it fails to materialize.) The flashbacks to Pekkala’s earlier life are all well done; arguably the best bits of the book after the opening.
You know, when I was a child, I heard that if a Russian goes into the woods, he becomes lost. But when a Finn steps into the forest…he simply disappears.
Not So Good Stuff: The historical feel is all wrong. The portrayal of Stalin makes him appear like a favorite uncle who is rather wrapped up in his own business, instead of a devilish dictator dealing death to his own people. Way too much sugar coating. The idea that an individual like Pekkala could be at the heart of not one, but two, dictatorial regimes, and play an active part in the state machine without being corrupted in some way, is beyond belief. He rises above the evil like a wizard walking on water. Pekkala is like a metaphorical advert for washing detergent, because no matter what he does, he stays bright, white, and clean. Even his one ‘bad’ act is so obviously an act of mercy, it passes like a mere background mention. A shame, because Pekkala is an interesting character with potential.
Pekkala had seen this kind of thing before. For some people, the burden of waiting to be caught was far worse than whatever might happen to them afterwards. He had known men to walk briskly to thier deaths, bounding up the gallows steps, impatient to be gone from this earth.