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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Shadow Pass, by Sam Eastland ($15)

This is the second in Sam Eastland's books about Special Investigator Pekkala, nicknamed "The Emerald Eye."

As a young Finn, Pekkala was brought to Russia to train as a soldier. He was singled out by the Tsar and trained further to be his special investigator. The badge indicating his special status looked like an emerald eye.

After the Romanovs were killed, Pekkala was sent to Siberia. There he endured terrible hardships. If it weren't for bad luck, as the song says, he'd have no luck at all. Pekkala was brought back from the verge of madness by Stalin to solve the murder of the Romanovs. After that case (The Eye of the Red Tsar), Pekkala remained as Stalin's investigator and the holder of a rare honor, the "shadow pass." Like 007's license to kill, Pekkala has the authority to go anywhere and do anything to solve the cases put forward by Stalin.

Pekkala is helped by the effervescent Major Kirov, who turns their office into a garden and offers kumquats to Pekkala like jewels.

In Shadow Pass, the two investigators must find out how Colonel Nagorski, the head of a top-secret department that is working on a top-secret tank, was killed. An accident? Possibly. The body was discovered under the colonel's favorite tank. It might have slipped out of gear when the colonel stepped out of the tank. Suicide? Possibly. He was given to moodiness. Murder? Most emphatically, especially when a bullet is discovered in his head.

Pekkala is a somewhat mystical character. Metaphorically risen from the dead, having survived exile and ostracism, he now somehow survives Stalin's infamous temper. Although an assassin previously shot at him at point blank range, there was not a mark on him, making him a legend in Moscow. No longer the young man who was a confidante of the tsar, he has learned many lessons the hard way over the years. He's tough, wary, smart, and has great reflexes.

The time period and setting that Eastland has selected are ripe for stories of intrigue and danger, and he does a great story-telling job, but it is the creation of Pekkala that is Eastland's best feat. There are flashbacks to Pekkala's time with the tsar, the crazy tsarina, and even crazier Rasputin. That is when Pekkala's character seems most human. He has not yet learned the loss and deprivation that future years hold for him, and has not yet walled off his emotions.

Not a spy story in the tradition of Le Carré or Furst, nor a political detective thriller like Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park, nor a political picture of a difficult time like Tom Robb Smith's books, nor a straddling of disparate ideologies like in J. Robert Janes' books, Eastland's works are primarily about one person. Don't think about the unlikelihood that a man could work for both the tsar and Stalin. Don't think about how Stalin sounds almost rational at times. It is easy to warm to Pekkala and Kirov as they make their way through the political minefield of their time.

Sam Eastland is the pseudonym of Paul Watkins, an American author. His biography says that he is the grandson of a London police detective. Good credentials, wot?

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