Monday, December 25, 2017

Yakovleva’s Atmospheric & Art-Filled Leningrad Detective Novel

Yulia Yakovleva’s Вдруг охотник выбегает, known in English as Tinker, Tailor, is a wonderfully atmospheric detective novel set in 1930 Leningrad: detective Vasily Zaitsev and his colleagues investigate some rather staged-looking murders. What made Tinker, Tailor tick for me was Yakovleva’s ability to blend dark details – nasty weather, dark streets, violent crime, and the start of the purges – with almost (I said “almost”!) cozy elements of Soviet life, things like train etiquette, a special delivery of potatoes (what says “love” like potatoes, anyway?), and an affection for the arts. Ballet, fine art, and the Hermitage all play large roles. Floating along with these and other period details, of course, is the Petersburg myth, something that seemed to follow around me like the Bronze Horseman both as I read and as I hurried down many of the same streets as Zaitsev when I was in Petersburg last month.

Although the plot of Tinker, Tailor felt rather lumpy – a little slow to gain momentum, then barreling to a conclusion – Yakovleva worked in plenty of historic and cultural details to hold my interest even when I was waiting for the book’s pieces to come together. Although I never quite felt I could distinguish Zaitsev’s entire supporting cast of colleagues, that’s often a problem for me, particularly with detective novels (in both Russian and English) where I seem to focus so/too much attention on clues and other details. In Tinker, Tailor it was especially fun to see historical, cultural, and political elements that came up in other books, among them Anastasia Vyaltseva’s song “Хризантемы” (“Chrysanthemums”), which comes up in Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator (previous post) as well as the film adaptation (maybe the novel, too; I don’t know) of Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch. And then there’s the fact that one of the deceased in Tinker, Tailor is an African-American communist, a detail that recalled Paul Goldberg’s The Yid (previous post).

And then there’s uneasiness and mistrust among the collective after an arrest. And political conclusions to criminal investigations. And generational clashes of values: toward the end, for example, the killer accuses Zaitsev, who’s younger and an orphan besides, of being a “дикарь” (“barbarian”) for his lack of cultural knowledge. Apparently it’s nicer to be a murderer than a police detective who’s willing to do plenty of remedial work that involves research requiring books as well as shoe leather. Zaitsev’s an appealing enough character that I’m very much looking forward to reading Yakovleva’s next book, Укрощение красного коня (Taming the Red Horse), which I bought, appropriately enough, last month in Petersburg. Even if Zaitsev isn’t quite as irresistible a figure as Boris Akunin’s Erast Petrovich Fandorin, he’s far more down-to-earth than Erast Petrovich (who can get a bit fussy) and has more than enough presence and smarts to make Tinker, Tailor an enjoyable novel.

I think that’s plenty, both to avoid spoilers and because it’s a lazy, snowy Christmas Day here. Merry Christmas!

Disclaimers: The usual. I first heard about Yakovleva’s books from Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency; BGS represents Yakovleva and quite a few of my authors, and I often collaborate with them. I received the book from one of the organizers of the Russian stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, thank you very much!

Up Next: Sukhbat Aflatuni’s lovely Tashkent Novel, Vladimir Medvedev’s polyphonic Zahhak, an end-of-year post, and something else…I have some appealing-looking books in English waiting for me!


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