Friday, March 12, 2010

Book Review: A Cold Red Sunrise

Stuart M. Kaminsky
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

I really liked most of the characters and the setting of this book. But the main murder plot just wasn’t very gripping.

The story is set in the tiny town of Tumsk, Siberia. Police detective Rostnikov is sent from Moscow to investigate the murder of another detective who was killed while investigating the death of a little girl – the daughter of a dissident who is about to get deported to the west.

Rostnikov is extremely appealing; gruff and plainspoken. He is honest and works very hard but has run afoul of the KGB a couple times back in Moscow, so this is sort of a test for him. He has a very tall, unemotional, doggedly loyal assistant, Karpo, who is a little like Lurch from the Addams Family. The Party watchdogs are, of course, totally incompetent and full of bluster. I felt like all the townspeople were well-defined, down to the nervous old woman who serves the visiting policemen their food. The conversation was spare and direct.

Siberia itself also plays a great part in the book. Rostnikov is sent to Tumsk during the winter, so it is always ridiculously cold and the sun barely rises at all in the sky in the daytime. Snow is piled everywhere, several feet high. A snowplow (run by the Navy personnel manning the town’s weather station) clears the streets at 6:00 am every morning and serves as the town alarm clock. Most of the town’s residents are dissidents or skeptics or (like the incompetent Party watchdogs) rejects from Moscow of some kind. Everyone seems very much alone.

The problem was that the murder story itself was a little simple and maybe a little tired. Rostnikov keeps all his information close to the vest, including from the reader, which is frustrating because you aren’t really able to make your own guesses (and thereby build up your suspense) from the evidence he uncovers. I do appreciate last-minute surprise revelations but in this book practically all the information you need comes out in the last ten pages.

It turned out that I did correctly guess who the murderer was, but mainly I just guessed that person because he/she seemed like the least likely suspect, and that’s what Agatha Christie teaches you to look out for. I still am not sure I really understand his/her motive.

Because of the plot issues, I was a bit surprised that this book won the Edgar. But the book did come out at the perfect time – the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was in its final crumble. Kaminsky’s detective and his assistant both have integrity and are just trying to do their jobs, and yet – or maybe because of that – they both end up struggling in their own ways against the oppressive system they live in. They are very sympathetic characters for the end of the Cold War.

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