Sunday, April 11, 2021

Fear Itself?: Anton Chizh’s Fear Machine

Anton Chizh’s Машина страха – I think I’ll take the easy way out and go for the Ronco-like title, The Fear Machine – is a retro detective novel set in 1898 St. Petersburg among a circle of people who hold séances where participants don’t just commune with the dead, they die. The Fear Machine blends historical, detective, and mystical elements, and it felt a bit peculiar to me, though that’s probably largely because I joined Chizh’s series of books about investigator Rodion Vanzarov and his crime-fighting cohort rather late in the game, as they say, with (if goodreads is correct) book eleven of a series.

So many characters! It feels like there are dozens of policemen, doctors, scientists, mediums, nosy neighbors, relatives, servants, and various other figures (the notary!) strewn throughout the novel. Come to think of it, there probably are that many. That’s not so much a complaint about Chizh’s book as a complaint about my own decision to read the most recent Vanzarov book (yes, #11!) when I could have started with book one and gotten to know Vanzarov’s co-workers more gradually. Then again, who am I for those subtleties?

I’m especially not inclined to complain because The Fear Machine made for fairly satisfying reading. I confess that I’m still having trouble focusing on certain types of books, particularly those set in the present day, meaning that the distant past is lovely (no worries about masking!), the contrast of the mediums’ psychic seeing with Vanzarov’s more scientific psychologika (my version, sorry) is welcome (mysticism takes me out of the news of the day), and detective novels tend to offer resolutions (satisfying in these indefinite days). For better or worse, The Fear Machine, which I think could rightly be considered a police procedural, ends with resolving whodunit1 (finding the murderer) but leaving whodunit2 (the fate of the machine, called “machina terroris” in a footnote) unsolved. The book ends with “конец I сеанса,” which sure looks in this case like “end of the first séance.” Implying: to be continued.

The Fear Machine plods along – it truly does describe a lot of police procedures – but the use of hypnosis, the notions of employing technology to catch criminals, and Vanzarov’s relentless use of psychological methods combine pretty decently. Particularly given all the personal fears and foibles sprinkled in. As well as familiar Petersburg toponyms. And humor: there’s even a sneaky little reference to Alexei Salnikov’s The Petrovs in and Around the Flu. All in all, a moderately satisfying book to read in strange times. These days, a “moderately satisfying,” even average, book that’s a slight bit cozy and involves genre norms can work its own practical wonders by not keeping me up at night.

Up Next: Vodolazkin’s History of Island, which I love, though it’s too fine a book to reread quickly these days. I have a print copy of another book to reread on the way, too.

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual.


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