Posts Tagged ‘Sretensky Monastery Choir’

The Tales Of Pekkala

Friday, February 6th, 2015

Some folks binge-watch TV shows. I binge-read books.

Much of the last two weeks has seen me making my way through the Inspector Pekkala mystery/suspense novels by Sam Eastland (the pen name of Paul Watkins for the series). Set in the Stalinist Soviet Union, the five novels in the series chronicle the life and work of Pekkala – his first name is never mentioned – as chief investigator for Tsar Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, and later for Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

The first novel – Eye Of The Red Tsar – sets the back story: Born in the later years of the Nineteenth Century, Pekkala is Finnish at a time when Finland was part of the Russian Empire. Sent to join an elite military regiment in St. Petersburg, his intelligence and memory catch the attention of the tsar, and after training in police work and espionage, he becomes the tsar’s secret investigator. After the Soviet revolution of 1917, Pekkala is sentenced to thirty years in a Siberian labor camp, but Stalin – whom Pekkala had met during the revolution – brings the Finn to Moscow and asks him to serve the Soviet state as an investigator whose role is limited only by what Stalin needs investigated and accomplished.

One of the quibbles I sometimes have with historical fiction is the way fictional characters meet historical figures; it often seems forced and implausible. I think of how Herman Wouk’s fictional naval officer Pug Henry met nearly every famous personage of the World War II era in The Winds Of War and War And Remembrance. Even as I enjoyed Wouk’s massive works, it sometimes felt like Wouk was moving Pug Henry around like a chess piece; Henry’s meetings with Hitler and Stalin and others often felt forced.

That’s not a problem with Inspector Pekkala. The first meeting with Tsar Nicholas II flows naturally from the story, and Pekkala’s meeting Stalin – during a post-revolutionary interrogation – also seems like a natural outcome of Pekkala’s post and personality combined with the chaos of post-revolutionary Russia and the omnipresent surveillance and brutality of the nascent Soviet regime. That’s a fine line to find as a writer – realistically bringing historical figures into a work of fiction – and Eastland does it well.

Another difficult task that Eastland accomplishes is making Inspector Pekkala a sympathetic, even admirable character, even though his work is done in the service of the Russian Empire – with those tales shown mostly in flashbacks – and the Soviet Union, two of the least humane governments in modern history. But Pekkala’s innate integrity – reinforced by memories of his undertaker father – equips him to deal with the tsar of a threatened Russian Empire, and the later lessons of surviving the Gulag further equip Pekkala to deal with the paranoid and brutal Stalin. As unlikely as that all seems, Eastland makes it work.

Although the books do detail some of the work Pekkala did for the tsar, the focus of the books is on his work as Stalin’s investigator. The stoic Finn is, of course, up to nearly every task that Stalin lays on him, from investigating the murders of Tsar Nicholas and his family to trying to protect the famed Amber Room during the Nazi invasion in World War II. And the history into which Eastland inserts Pekkala seems accurate (as displayed in the appendices Eastland occasionally provides).

Eastland also manages to avoid one of the traps that threaten authors of historical fiction: All too often, historical figures come off as props to move the story forward instead of as characters in their own rights. That’s not the case in the Pekkala novels.

Tsar Nicholas comes across as an uncertain man, presented at times as an almost reluctant dictator and at other times as blinded by greed; Eastland’s Stalin is less conflicted, clearly the brute that history has judged him, and yet, Eastland manages to make the Soviet dictator human. In the fifth volume, The Beast In The Red Forest, Stalin is listening via radio as Pekkala, his assistant Kirov and Kirov’s fiancée eat dinner:

He opened a drawer in his desk, removed a can of sardines in tomato sauce and peeled back the top with a small key . . . But before he began his meal, Stalin lifted the headset, with which he had been listening to the conversation in Pekkala’s office . . . Now, as Stalin heard the sound of cutlery on plates, he slipped one of the greasy, headless sardines into his mouth. While he chewed, he felt the soft bones crush between his teeth. Pausing to lick the tiny, glistening fish scales from his fingertips, Stalin imagined he was there among them in that cosy little room, sharing the warmth and the laughter.

A writer who can make Josef Stalin a sympathetic character, even if only for an instant, knows what he is doing.

The mystery/suspense genre is one of my favorites; I appreciate a well-crafted tale in nearly any genre; and, of course, all things Russian fascinate me, which makes Eastland’s series a perfect fit in these parts. The sixth novel in the series, Red Icon, is set to be released in April, and when its title shows up among the upcoming acquisitions at my local library, my name will be one of the first on its waiting list.

And just to end things with music, here’s the Russian folk song, “Ah, The Steppe So Wide,” as performed by the Sretensky Monastery Choir of Moscow for its 2007 album Favorite Russian Songs:

Here is Eastland’s website for the Inspector Pekkala novels.