My review of Eastland’s first Inspector Pekkala book (Eye of the Red Tsar) is entitled ‘A readable but flawed thriller’. I could call this one exactly the same thing, and sadly by and large it’s due to the same flaws.
The mystery in ‘The Red Coffin’ is stronger than in ‘Eye’. The Soviet Union is building a top secret tank, and somebody is trying to sabotage its construction and steal the plans. Pekkala is called to investigate the possibility of espionage, but on his arrival finds the lead architect, and prime suspect for the leaks, has been killed by one of his own tanks. After quickly ruling out misadventure Pekkala has a murder to solve. There are various players in the mystery, some with personal motives, some with political ones, and others with both. The mystery itself is fairly standard and Pekkala roots out his man, against the colourful backdrop of the Soviet Union shortly before the outbreak of World War II. Once again, Eastland’s prose is superior to most writers of crime-fiction, his turn of phrase and use of language making it a enjoy to read. If I was just commenting on the whodunnit aspects of the book I would have been quite satisfied.
The biggest problem for me is the central premise, which is horribly flawed. Pekkala is meant to have been the Tsar’s personal detective, confidant and privy to pretty much all of the Royal Family’s secrets. Yet despite this, Stalin, a man who can kill without need or provocation takes him on too. In one scene, we are told that Stalin had an entirely family murdered just because one of them was the first to stop clapping at a rally. Yet we are supposed to believe he keeps alive the Tsar’s right hand man? He even allows Pekkala to make the odd joke at his expense. The Stalin in Eastland’s books is not so much a feared and paranoid psychopath, more a slightly confused, cardigan wearing uncle with a big moustache. If Pekkala was infallible, it might make some sense, but in this book, he manages to make a reasonable sized error, without any comeback.
Pekkala’s sidekick is drawn as a bumbling innocent, who is far too naive to have remained alive long enough to make it to the rank of Major, and that is the novel’s central problem – most of the important characters are just too nice, with little of the neck-saving duplicity one associates with accounts of these times. Eastland’s characters aren’t so much living through ‘The Terror’ but more seem to be seeing out ‘The Bit Nasty’. It ruins the book’s credibility.
So all in all, this is a good mystery with a likeable sleuth, set in what should be an interesting locale. If you can cope with a lack of authenticity in your mysteries there is much to like here, but if you are stickler of historical accuracy, then you’d better move on, for this book will irritate you no end.