Eye of the Red Tsar by Sam Eastland is a historical mystery set in 1929, during the early days of Stalinist Russia. The first of the Inspector Pekkala series, it shines a light on an often-overlooked period, when the USSR was a strange international pariah, rather than the Red Menace of the Cold War.
A former member of the elite Finnish Regiment, Pekkala was trusted with the safety of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. However, those glory days have long since past and since the October Revolution, he’s been banished to Siberia for his connections with the past regime. It will be noted by history buffs, that 1929 is the year where what we know of as the GULAG came into existence, but that’s neither here nor there.
The important thing is that Pekkala is brought out of retirement by a certain Josef Stalin – through a young OGPU commissar named Kirov – who tasks him with a special mission. During his service in the Finnish Guard, Pekkala earned the title “Eye of the Tsar” for his investigative skills. So, the new Red Tsar decides to put him to good use. It seems Comrade Stalin is now interested in who actually murdered the Tsar and his family back in 1918. Or were they all killed? And most importantly, where is the Romanov’s treasure located? It’s Pekkala’s job to find out.
Joining Pekkala is his brother, Anton, who sided with the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War and is now known by a new alias – Commander Starek. The bad blood between them boils over when they see each other again, leading to an almost comical fight scene. Along with Commissar Kirov, the trio – or troika – travel through the bleak and desolate USSR of 1929, long ravaged by civil war and famine, and only just beginning to recover. One scene in particular that stands out is a “fake town” used to impress visiting Western Communists, fooling them into believing the USSR is heaven on earth. The troika is even given phony apples while passing through to fortify the illusion.
The novel makes use of many flashbacks, filling out the background of Pekkala and also the history of the Russian Revolution. I was a little put off by the naming of Kirov, since I kept thinking of Sergei Kirov the entire time. In case anyone is in the dark about him, check out Sergei Kirov’s Wikipedia page as a launching pad into some time-consuming historical rabbit holes.
Eye of the Red Tsar is a decent historical mystery, highlighting a period the is relatively unknown in the West, and a solid start to a long-running series.
Sam Eastland Interview
1) What inspired you to write the book?
The character of Pekkala is based in part on my grandfather, who was a detective for Scotland Yard. He died when I was quite young, but I grew up hearing so many stories about him that it felt like he was still alive and – I don’t know how else to describe this but it’s how it seemed to me when I was a child – like he was simply living in a different dimension. Writing about him was a way of ordering the disembodied anecdotes I knew about him into one coherent character. The only problem was how and where to put him.
Setting the book in Tsarist and Stalinist Russia came about after I had been researching the disappearance of the Tsar’s Imperial Gold Reserves, 33,000 bars of gold, each weighing 16lbs, in the early days of the revolution. I am, in my life outside of writing, a history teacher at a small school in New Jersey, and this story was originally for one of my classes. But one story kept leading to another and, before long, I had so many of them bouncing around inside my head that I realized this was going to take up much more of my life than a single history class. I also realized that this was the landscape, and the time period, in which the character of my grandfather belonged. This sort of thing always happens! Waiting for stories to come along is like standing in the path of a gently falling meteor shower. Anecdotes fly past you all the time, any one of which could be turned into a book, but they lack the necessary power to obsess you enough to make that kind of a commitment. Once in a while, though, one of those meteors will slam right into your skull and that’s where the obsession begins. It is like being haunted by a ghost, and writing becomes an act of exorcism.
2) What research did you do for Eye of the Red Tsar?
For me, the research for historical fiction – which is most of what I do – breaks down into two categories. The first is book research. A lot of what I needed to know for this book, and the six other books in the series, wasn’t on the Internet. Many times, I found myself reading long out of print volumes whose pages were disintegrating as I turned them. The other challenge in writing about this time period is that there are so many versions of the same story, many of them outright lies put out by soviet propaganda, particularly during the time in the 1930’s known as The Great Terror. I literally ended up with two bookshelves, one which had books written by Russians about Russia and another which had books about Russia written by everyone else.
When it comes to Russian history, the truth always lies somewhere in between these different versions.
The other kind of research is the physical. I had clothes made for me which fitted the description Pekkala and I wore them so that I could understand how they felt, how they behaved. I spent a lot of time in the wilderness of northern Maine, which is where I live for part of the year, in order to be able to write about Pekkala experiences in Siberia. The landscape of northern Maine is very close to that of Siberia, particularly in the winter, when it is barbarically cold. It’s an eccentric approach, and you have reason to doubt your own sanity when you are walking across a frozen lake in the middle of winter in the kind of clothing nobody has worn in decades, but it gives you great insight into things you would never have understood, or been able to describe, without first-hand experience.
3) There is a subgenre of mysteries/thrillers in the vein of Arkady Renko and Bernie Gunther – the decent detective in an evil system. Often times it’s in a historical setting, like Inspector Pekkala. Did any of the books in this subgenre influence on you?
I don’t read any crime fiction. I never have. I didn’t write these books in order to plug myself into a particular genre. I did it because, by the time I started the first book, it was either write or go crazy. I don’t read much fiction at all. I find that the last thing I can do at the end of a day of writing fiction is to curl up with a good novel. I read all the time, but it’s mostly research for whatever book I’m working on at the time.
4) There is a scene with phony apples designed to fool “useful idiot” Western Communists into believing the USSR is the land of plenty. Funny enough, there’s a scene similar in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets which was published in 1929, the year your novel takes place. This makes me wonder if such propaganda was actually used by the Soviets in the 1920s?
This did happen. It was known as a ‘Potemkin Village’ and represents one of the most macabre aspects, both in its concept and its execution, of the extraordinary illusion the communists felt obliged to create about their great experiment when things started to go wrong right from the start. I think the Russians understand the art of deception better than anyone else. They called it ‘Maskirovka’, and you don’t have to look very far to see it being used to great effect today.
5) Did you always have an Inspector Pekkala series in mind, or did a sequel happen after Eye of the Red Tsar was successful?
I never thought the series would do as well as it had done, especially in the number of translations – which I believe is up to 23 languages now. I originally hoped it might extend to three books, but there are seven of them now and I don’t think I’m finished yet. I feel very grateful. People write to me all the time with various comments and questions. Pekkala has become almost real to some of them, as he is to me, as well.
6) Was there anything in your research of 1920s Russia that interested you but for one reason or another, was cut out of the finished manuscript?
Yes, there were stories I removed, but only because they grew too large and ended up as their own books. This is happening again now that the series is being developed for TV. Things which were only anecdotes have sort of gone super nova and now form the backbone of episodes in the first season.
7) Similarly, were there any plot points/characters from earlier drafts that you cut?
I am too stingy with the things I have written to consign them to oblivion if I can help it. One thing that does happen from time to time is that characters merge – three people morph into one – when I realize they are too closely following the same narrate arcs.
8) What can we inspect from Inspector Pekkala in the next few books?
When the television development really started to look like it might work, I had to pause in the writing of the series in order that the narratives did not diverge. The last thing you want is to have a series of novels running parallel to a television series in a way that ends up compromising them both. I am looking forward to getting back to writing more Pekkala books, but the pause has also given me the opportunity to go back to writing under my real name, which is Paul Watkins.
9) What are you working on currently?
As soon as I have finished writing this, within the hour – I am setting off from my cabin in Maine, way up on the border of Quebec, and I am driving down to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It will take me two months to get there and back if I follow the route I have planned. This is all for research on a new novel which is set in the late 1870’s, right at the end of the Plains Indian Wars. If I am ever going to write about it properly, I need to get some dust on my boots.