Sunday, July 28, 2019

Verbinina’s Moscow Time

I think I’ve written before that I have a particular (perhaps even peculiar) attraction to detective novels because I enjoy reading about fears. Valeria Verbinina gives her Московское время (Moscow Time) a perfect setting for all sorts of fears: Moscow in 1939. Verbinina’s retro detective novel doesn’t offer the “изящество” and “вкус” (elegance and taste) that Akunin’s Fandorin series offers right on the cover, but Moscow Time made for good, albeit slightly didactic, entertainment during a busy time in the heat of summer. (“Busy” and “heat” pretty much sum up my whole summer!) Even if many of the novel’s details were long-forgotten a few days after finishing, the contours of the book – which feel most important anyway – settled in pretty solidly.

The basic plot is relatively simple: a student named Nina walks into in the middle of a police operation one night on her way home from the Bolshoy Theater, where she’s just seen Ivan Susanin. (!) Nina immediately develops a crush on one of the (disguised) team members, a respected and dedicated investigator fond of sleeping in his office. Nina lives in a communal apartment, an aspect of the story that reminds me a bit of Yulia Yakovleva’s retro detective novels: communal apartments offer fantastic opportunities for introducing characters with diverging histories, professions, and motives. And of course residents often clash. Although Verbinina sometimes goes on a bit too long when telling backstories – though I sincerely love that Nina’s father is a tuba player – she puts the neighbors to good use in her plot. A plot that includes a serial killer. A strangler.

The whodunnit aspect of Moscow Time feels less important than all those fears I mentioned. There’s discussion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and lots of background on World War 2, plus details on Nina’s father’s earlier life, which includes World War 1 and 1917. Appropriately, that chapter is called “Тревога,” “anxiety” or “alarm.” Verbinina’s narration, which sometimes reverts to the first-person, as if the narrator is a guide to times past, offers plenty of hindsight, not to mention a few footnotes, including one that alerts the reader that saccharine was used a lot in the Soviet 1920s. There’s also some history of early Soviet-era serial killers, including one that Mikhail Bulgakov wrote about in “The Komarov Case”. (Bulgakov also appears in some of Verbinina’s chapter epigraphs.) Though I occasionally thought the narration and footnotes got a little too pedagogical (saccharine, for example, is something I’ve run across many times), I enjoyed picking up other historical tidbits.

There’s plenty more here to observe, including Verbinina’s use of redacted curses (I’m sure people really did swear in Soviet times!); one character accusing another of using a newspaper photo of Stalin for, ah, wiping; differing opinions on Vertinsky; a character who is (once) called Lizok, and some marital advice. On a more plot-oriented level, there’s some good-cop-bad-cop material plus a downtown chase scene involving a bread truck. All in all, Moscow Time was easy, entertaining reading that just keeps rolling along, the sort of book I’d be quick to recommend to readers looking to build their Russian reading skills. There’s lots of dialogue and the story moves along at a decent clip. Even if it’s not dense with suspense and ends a touch too rapidly, what interested me most about Moscow Time in the first place was observing how a prolific contemporary Russian author envisions Soviet-era serial killings and communal life in a novel that blends history, crime, and coming of age.

And now off to the beach with another detective novel, Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind, set in the Middle Ages.

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual.

Up Next: Alexander Pelevin’s Kalinova Yama, which was good but not the wonder of The Four, and Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, which has really sucked me in.


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