Review: Eye of the Red Tsar by Sam Eastland

I have struggled to find books that appeal to me for the Eastern European Challenge (we shall speak no more of the DNF pile) so I allowed myself a small ‘cheat’ by reading a book set in Russia though written by an outsider (in fact Sam Eastland is a pseudonym used by a grandson of a London detective who served in the 1940’s).

As the book opens we meet a man who has, barely, survived 10 years in a Siberian gulag following the Russian revolution of 1917. We learn that he was once a great detective and so close to Tsar Nicholas II that it was inevitable he would be treated harshly by the Tsar’s opponents. His rescue comes at the hands of none other than Joseph Stalin who wants the man, known only as Pekkala, to discover once and for all whether or not the Tsar and his family are dead and, more importantly, to find the treasure the Tsar was believed to have hidden. Pekkala is ‘assisted’ in his investigations by his estranged brother and a young Commissar called Kirov.

I like an alternate history as much as the next reader but, for me anyway, there are limits it’s best not to go beyond and this book went a good way past them. Tsar Nicholoas II is portrayed as a kind-of ‘everyone’s kindly old uncle’ character, dispensing sage advice and home-spun philosophy alongside his boundless affection for man and beast. In this version of the man there is not even a hint of the autocratic, anti-semitic, mass murderer that real history has recorded. Apart from making me cringe at its unsavouriness, this cleaning up of the Tsar’s character also made it impossible for me to be fully drawn into the novel because the Tsar’s personality was the hook upon which everything else hung and I didn’t for a moment swallow it.

Even if I had been able to put that aspect of the novel aside I can’t imagine I would have ever been fully engaged by the rest of it. The character of Pekkala, who carries almost all of the action, wasn’t much more credible than the Tsar and I thought Eastland went too far in trying to make him sympathetic. He is totally brilliant (of course) and has a zen-like capacity to forgive the various injustices committed against him (which by the end of the novel stack up quite high) and is just too perfect to be really interesting. His two companions in investigation are not drawn in enough detail to provide much interest either, especially when most of their contribution seems to be moaning about the cold, the lack of food and whatever else they can find to whine about (Pekkala of course accepts all of this with grace and wisdom).

The story is told from Pekkala’s perspective and oscillates between the present and his flashbacks to various points in his past including his childhood, his time as a detective and his years in the gulag. I did enjoy this structure as it provided a good sense of the historical placement of the present events. The mystery itself was also decently plotted, especially as Eastland didn’t take the expected path when depicting his version of what happened to the Romanovs and their treasures. I did find the inclusion at the end of the novel a timeline of what actually happened to the Romanovs odd though, as if the author was wanting to shout “I made all that other stuff up you know” in case we hadn’t worked that out for ourselves.

I know I probably shouldn’t be so harsh about a novel simply because I couldn’t buy into the author’s world but I think that’s one of the risks of using prominent real people about whom much is known as significant characters in a novel. If I ignore the characters all together Eye of the Red Tsar is an entertaining enough yarn, especially as read by the always brilliant Stephen Pacey, but for me to be really engaged by a novel I need characters I can believe and they were sadly lacking here.

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There are loads of people who think this is a much better book than I did including those who review at Euro Crime and It’s A Crime…Or A Mystery

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 2.5/5
Narrator Stephen Pacey
Publisher AudioGO [2010]
ISBN N/A (downloaded from audible.com)
Length 9 hours 47 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #1 in the inspector Pekkala series
Source I bought it

This entry was posted in 2011 Eastern European Challenge, book review, Sam Eastland. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Review: Eye of the Red Tsar by Sam Eastland

  1. kathy durkin says:

    Thanks for your honest appraisal of the book and the tsar. Not that this was on my TBR pile, but now it is on my DNER (Do Not Ever Read) pile. My grandparents on one side of the family fled tsarist anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia-occupied Poland before WWI, so this would be an absurd book for me to read. Again, a good book review here prevented a disastrous read or a DNF!

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  2. Bernadette – Thanks for this clear, thoughtful and candid review. Like Kathy, I wouldn’t probably have been deeply interested in it anyway, especially given the way the Tsar is portrayed. Too much of my history shows him to be quite different. But now? No, thank you; I don’t think I will give it a go.

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  6. j says:

    I am from Eastern Europe, but none of the things mentioned above bothered me a bit. It is just a good read, or a good detective story. (We usually not say that how come that Miss Marple figures out everything light years before anybody else does.) Of course the tsar wasn’t a credible figure, much less Stalin; but in a certain way the chaotic circumcstances and brutality of the time was described very well. And about the two other characters, well, I guess the story was taylored for readers today, who wouldn’t be able to memorize more than six names anyway,

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