Quick Review: MOSKVA by Jack Grimwood (Penguin/Thomas Dunne)

GrimwoodJ-TF1-MoskvaUKPBA missing girl, and a twisted mystery that reaches back to the last days of the Second World War

‘A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…’

January, 1986. A week after disgraced Intelligence Officer Tom Fox is stationed to Moscow the British Ambassador’s fifteen-year-old daughter goes missing. Fox is ordered to find her, and fast. But the last thing the Soviets want is a foreign agent snooping about on their turf. Not when a killer they can’t even acknowledge let alone catch is preparing to kill again…

A Cold War thriller haunted by an evil legacy from the Second World War, Moskva is a journey into the dark heart of another time and place.

Exiled to Moscow after making a mistake in Northern Ireland, Tom Fox is supposed to be writing a report on the stubborn of religion in Soviet Russia. He doesn’t want to be there, but he can speak Russian and he is an experienced researcher. Very quickly, however, he gets roped into finding the British ambassador’s missing daughter. What follows is a twisty investigation through the Russian underground and corrupt echelons of the Muscovite elite, with roots in the Second World War. This is the first novel in a gripping new series. I really enjoyed it.

Tom Fox is an interesting protagonist. He’s very much in the “damaged, cynical, just” mould that is popular in mystery fiction set during the Cold War. He finds himself involved in the mystery of the ambassador’s missing daughter. Brought in because he was one of the last people to speak to her, and also because he is sufficiently low in the pecking order in Moscow that he should be able to move relatively freely and make inquiries. It quickly becomes apparent that there’s a lot more going on than he and anyone else originally thought. The more he uncovers, the further into Russia’s underworld he travels, while simultaneously also making connections that reach up into the city and government’s upper echelons. Given his rather indelicate methodology, he also makes plenty of enemies — on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The Cold War politics adds an interesting facet to the mystery and investigation, too.

GrimwoodJ-MoskvaUKAs I mentioned earlier, the mystery at the heart of the novel has its roots in the Second World War, and actions taken by certain key officials during the final years of Russian forces’ push towards and occupation of Berlin. As a result, Grimwood is able to spend some time examining these turbulent, brutal years. As is sometimes the case, the “peace” can become more horrifying than than the war. Here’s one especially harrowing explanation:

“German women began hanging themselves before the Red Army even arrived. Those with families did it only after they’d cut the wrists of the small children, even babies. The commissar had told his men not to requisition buildings without first checking their attics, where such suicides could usually be found, in various states of decay. Things were bad enough without his men going down with fever. When the men couldn’t find German women to rape, they raped the Ukrainians, Poles and Byelorussians they freed from Nazi slave camps. Three days was the unofficial rule. Three days of raping and looting, drunkenness and murder. After that, the mayhem was meant to stop; but drunken frontoviki with submachine guns were difficult to control and sometimes it was simply safer to allow them extra days.”

Grimwood has a gift for evoking a sense of place. Whether following Fox through Moscow, or venturing further afield, or delving back into the last years of the War, the author writes vividly, bringing the scenes to (often cold, chilly) life. He doesn’t go overboard with the descriptions, however, nor does he get bogged down in period detail. He lets events and the characters show us what they see and feel. The novel is filled with interesting, sharp, and sometimes amusing observations, too.

‘Crap engine. Hideous shocks. Steers like a dead cow.’
‘Soviet engineering at its finest.’

‘Tetris,’ the bar owner said sourly. ‘Worse than heroin.’

I really enjoyed this novel, and am very much looking forward to reading Nightfall Berlin (which I will hopefully get to very soon). If you have any interest in novels set during this era, then I would highly recommend you read Moskva.

*

Moskva is out now, published in the UK by Penguin, and Thomas Dunne Books in North America. The second novel in the Tom Fox series, Nightfall Berlin, is also out now in the UK.

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