Fresh Blood

Name: Sam Eastland

Title of Book: Eye of the Red Tsar

'Exciting, fast moving and eminently readable...'

Set in Stalinist Russia under the oppressive rule of Joseph Stalin, this tells the tale of one Inspector Pekkala, once the favourite of the last Tsar and famous throughout Russia.

After the revolution he finds himself exiled in Siberia, only surviving because of his enormous resilience and undoubted talents. When he is taken away from the harsh and bitter life he is living, he finds himself working for the dictator, Stalin.

Pekkala is the only one left with the memory and authority to carry out the investigation into a crime that has enormous importance to the whole of the new regime. His reward will be to leave the Soviet Union to find his long lost love. Accompanied by a young and inexperienced officer and dogged by characters from his past, Pekkala solves the crime but things donít work out exactly as he had planned.

This is an excellent debut novel, albeit by an established author in another genre.

Pekkala is undoubtedly a hero and character to be reckoned with. He is gritty and has the physical strength to survive the horrible regime. He also has the mental faculties to sustain torture and to second-guess the motivations of those who do not wish him well.

The atmosphere in the last days of the Tsar and the terror of the Stalin years are vividly portrayed. The imaginative leaps that puts flesh on the bones of the Romanov family are fascinating, as is the scenario of their deaths that he proposes.

Exciting, fast moving and eminently readable, this book is a very good companion for the remaining winter nights.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) How would you classify your writing, and do you consciously try to write to a certain style or genre?
I would classify Eye of the Red Tsar, and the ones that will follow as part of the series, as Historical Crime Drama. I knew when I started writing this book that to create and maintain the presence of a detective in fiction required at least an awareness of the genre. Readers have, I think, the right to expect that they will be immersed in a world which has, like the laws of gravity in our own universe, certain guarantees of how things function in that world. Before I began writing, I was worried that I would feel hemmed in by working in this genre, but what I soon came to realize is that there are so many variations of plot, so much history to be brought to life, that there is no question of feeling confined. Creating Inspector Pekkala has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life and I hope that comes through on the page. The immersion has been so complete that I sometimes find myself thinking - Am I an Anglo-American writer in the 21st Century, typing away at my keyboard day after day in my cabin up in the north woods of Maine, or am I a Finnish detective in Siberia, at the height of the Great Terror, dreaming some dream of the future? Given that the temperature outside my cabin today is -10F, and that the only way I can get to the bottom of my garden is with snowshoes, mistaking my surroundings for Siberia might not sound completely far-fetched.
2) What type of crime novels do you like to read? Do you prefer series or standalone?
The crime books I read these days are rarely novels, but rather books written by people who were themselves investigators or who were involved in some form of police work. For example, I have just finished a book, now out of print I believe, called 'The Century of the Detective', by Jurgen Thorwald. It deals with the early days of forensics in criminal investigations. Books like these are incredibly useful because, particularly in the writing of historical fiction, you sometimes need to 'reverse engineer' certain aspects of crime solving which are now taken for granted. Take fingerprinting, for example. It wasn't so long ago that what is now one of the mainstays of detective work, for which much of the credit belongs to a man name Edward Henry, former Inspector General for the Province of Bengal in the late 1800's, was looked upon with deep suspicion. Prior to that, the measuring of noses, ears, brow and jaw lines pioneered by the eccentric Frenchman, Alphonse Bertillon, was considered to be the most reliable means of identifying a known criminal. To understand the old methods is both fascinating and critical. Another book I've just read is 'How to Cook and Eat in Russian', written in 1947 by Princess Alexandra Kropotkin. Princess Kropotkin grew up in Tsarist Russia and her recipes, as well as the story behind those recipes, provides exactly the kind of background detail I need for writing the story. And of course I have to try out the recipes. The other day, I made a ham stew called Boujenina. It is seasoned with hay. No one else in my family would touch it. I ate Boujenina for a week and if I never have it again, that would be fine with me.
3) Is Inspector Pekkala an entirely fictional character or has he any basis in fact?
He is mostly a work of fiction. However, I derived some of his personality from a man named A.T. Vassileyev, who was the last Chief of the Ochrana, the Tsar's Secret Police, before the Revolution. He wrote a book on his experiences, which was published in 1930, at the height of the Stalinist Terrors in Russia. What I've noticed is that people who know something about this time period sometimes feel the need to come down on one side or another. For them, either the Tsar was terrible and they defend Stalin. Or Stalin was terrible and they find themselves defending the Tsar. The truth is, both sides of this coin bear witness to a depravity and disregard for human life which simply boggles the mind. Vassileyev knew this. I glimpsed in him a man simply trying to do his job - to do good in a world governed by evil - both in the people who ruled the country and the people who were trying to bring it down. Pekkala is not Vassileyev, and I don't pretend to have acquired a completely reliable portrait of the man from reading his memoir. But I did see something of the world in which Vassileyev lived, and I asked myself how I might have been if I had lived through those days. What shimmered into life, like a holographic image inside my skull, was the face of Inspector Pekkala.
4) The descriptions of the Tsarís family and their relationships with their servants and the court throw a new light on the day-to-day existence of the royal family. Again, is this purely a work of imagination or has it involved a great deal of painstaking research?
This part was all research. Photographs. Memoirs. Biographies. More photographs. Fortunately, the details of the Romanov's family life has been very well recorded, even down to the colour of pencil the Tsar used to mark up documents of state (blue), the perfume used by the Tsarina ('Violette') and the clothing they wore when they were out of the public eye. The Romanovs were keen photographers, and much of what informed their presence in the book came from pictures they themselves had taken, even in the last months of their lives when they were prisoners in Tobolsk and Ekaterinburg. You really have to like doing this research. You can read a whole book and find only one useful detail. It is like panning for gold, and requires a kind of stubbornness I never knew I had until I starting writing Eye of the Red Tsar.
5) Pekkala is a bit of an anti-hero. He has survived incredible treatment and brutal conditions because of his extraordinary talents, and then uses his experiences to survive confrontation with Stalin himself. Do you see him having to compromise on his moral stance in order to continue to live, and is there anything that he would not do?
I often ask myself that question while I am writing. Pekkala possesses a very steady moral gyroscope. His incorruptibility is the stuff of legend, while the world around him shifts and bends according to the will of those hypnotised by their own power. This includes both Stalin and the Tsar. Pekkala does not want what they want. They cannot tempt him as others have been tempted. That is why two absolute rulers, mortal enemies of each other, can both trust the same man absolutely.
6) Why did you choose Stalinist Russia as the setting for your first crime novel?
This time period, and this place, is so rich in contradiction, barbarity and illusion that I can't imagine setting it anywhere else. It is the ultimate proving ground, not only for a detective but for anyone with a past who is hoping to survive. But it's a lot of work. Russian history is a labyrinth. For every book I read on one particular subject, there was another one to contradict it. I knew that whatever events I was describing would likely be questioned by someone who thought they knew better. For example, in one review of Eye of the Red Tsar, the writer claimed I had made a mistake, calling the members of the Czech Legion Austrians and Hungarians, when in fact, in terms of their nationality, that is exactly what they were. The Czechs and Slovaks who made up the legion represented an ethnic group within the boundaries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On the Eastern Front during the Great War, many Czechs and the Slovaks were fighting on the side of the Russians, in order to secure for themselves their own country (what eventually became Czechoslovakia). The only way they could achieve this was by defeating Germany and Austria-Hungary. Until that time, they remained subjects of Austria and Hungary and, as such, were often shot as deserters if they fell into enemy hands. I have learned to take such disagreements with good grace, knowing that when it comes to Russian history, to state anything categorically is to walk out on very thin ice.
7) Do you have a plan mapped out for more in the series, or do you intend to work on one novel at a time and go where the characters lead you?
I have already written the second book in the series. It is called The Red Coffin and will be out with Faber in January of 2011. Both novels are also coming out in the USA, France, Italy, Greece, Poland, Portugal and a few other places. I am now about half way through the third book. Although I am working on one book at a time, they exist in my head like overlapping discs. I often come across details which belong in the next book, or the book after that. It is as if I am playing a kind of three dimensional chess game, shifting pieces from one level to the next, to see where they best belong.
8) What are the qualities you look for in another writers' work?
Directness in the telling. Precision in the detail. Enthusiasm in the work.
9) Who would be your dream cast of movie actors for an adaptation of your story?
I was asked this the other day, by a film director who wants to option the book. At first, I thought I shouldn't answer. We all have our own images of certain characters in books, none of them quite the same. I was afraid it might spoil things for another reader, in that case the director who was looking over the novel. But if I had to pick a face for Pekkala, it would be the way Daniel Day Lewis looked in 'There Will Be Blood'.
10) Without giving away the plot, which story included your favourite plot twist of all time?
I hope you won't mind my choosing a film instead of a book. My favourite plot twist of all time is the real identity of Kaiser Soze in The Usual Suspects. Even though the writer borrowed it from Baudelaire, I love the line "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn't exist."
11) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
If Dickens' 'Bleak House' could be considered a crime novel - and I certainly think it warrants the title - then I would pick the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of that book, the script for which was written by Andrew Davies, and starred Charles Dance and Gillian Anderson. When it first came out, I read a lot of criticism of the film, but I found it to be a beautiful retelling of the story.
12) Would you describe yourself as a crime fiction fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why?
I am a fan of crime fiction - I grew up reading Hammett, Spillane, Puzo, Capote, Dorothy L. Sayers, Chandler, Buchan, Wilkie Collins and John Forsyth. Some of those authors were a little out of date when I was growing up, and I remember feeling a little out of date myself at school, with my feet up on my desk at the back of the classroom during lunch break, lost in the writing of authors who, in some cases, my friends had never heard of. That didn't stop me reading them. In fact, I rather liked it.
13) What is your favourite read crime of all time?
This would be a long list but right now, if you were going to cast me adrift on a life raft with only one book to read, I would choose The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad.