After a career in TV production Helen Bettinson recently ditched a long commute around the M25 in order to concentrate on reading, and perhaps even writing, crime fiction.
In this country snowdrops herald the longed-for arrival of spring. Not so in Moscow, and certainly not in A.D. Miller’s compelling new novel, where the epithet attaches to snow-buried bodies revealed in the big seasonal thaw.
But if bodies can be buried so too can morals, as displaced, thirty-something, British lawyer Nick discovers. His self-serving confession, shot through with wry humour and acute observation, peels back the glamorous veneer of the Russian capital to expose the casual, ingrained, seedy violence that lies beneath.
It’s easy to forget the pull that Moscow had on Westerners in the 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a gigantic economic free-for-all that foreign investors and lawyers found irresistible. The defunct empire’s mineral wealth was there for the plucking – and there was no shortage of ruthless would-be native oligarchs and ambitious Anglo-American advisors to aid and abet the plunder.
For this reader (who in the mid ‘90s worked and travelled in Russia) Miller’s book perfectly captures the self-deluding outsider’s love affair with this extraordinary country and people. It was hard not to patronise the locals with their childish addiction to all things “designer”, yet at the same time we were awed by their stoicism and courage in the face of climatic extremes and social hardship unimaginable back home.
Because he speaks Russian and has survived a handful of Moscow winters Nick falls into the trap of thinking he is one of them. The author – formerly the Moscow correspondent of the Economist – reminds him, in brutal fashion, that he is not. The fundamental truth about Russians, as Nick discovers in the course of his relationship with the enigmatic Masha, is that despite appearances they are not like us. However much we would like them to, they do not share our agenda nor our way of looking at the world.
To paraphrase one Nick’s colleagues: in Moscow there are no politics stories, there are no love stories, there are only crime stories. Nick would not agree and neither do I. Wrapped up in the enticing garb of a crime novel is a story about love: Nick’s love for a beautiful mobile phone salesgirl, for her slutty sister and babushka aunt. Above all, it is about his love for a country forever beyond his grasp. From the first page the reader knows it will never be reciprocated. Miller’s skill is in keeping us turning the pages with anxious anticipation to discover how the doomed affair will play out.