Moscow Christmas Eve 1985. The naked body of a young boy is found at the foot of the Kremlin. There are no clues as to how he met his death. No bullet holes, no stab wounds, no broken limbs, no bruises. But his skin is unnaturally white. Someone, it seems, drained his body of blood before dumping him in the snow.
One week later and Alex Marston, the headstrong teenage step-daughter of the British Ambassador, goes missing from the official residence. Has she been abducted? What’s the connection between her and the body found at the Kremlin? Her mother is distraught. For her step-father it’s an inconvenience because if she’s not found quickly he’ll be obliged to involve the Soviet police and diplomatic service.
Though he has little regard for Major Tom Cook, the newest member of the Embassy team, the Ambassador’s options are limited. Cook, a chaplain turned army intelligence officer who it appears was hurriedly sent to Moscow to avoid spilling secrets to a government inquiry about uncover operations in Northern Ireland, is drafted in to find the girl. It’s an assignment that drags him deep into the heart of a faction of the Soviet establishment that is determined to protect itself at all costs. Cook has to call on all his resources in the face of opposition from KGB, the Politburo and some of the highest level of government ministers, none of whom want the secrets of the past to come to light. He has few people on his side other than the owner of a seedy bar, a former soldier who returned from Afghanistan with a prosthetic made from the leaf spring of a car. This unlikely pair have to act fast as the body count rises.
An avalanche of thrilling set pieces propels the plot forward to a perfect show down ending. Grimwood is new to thriller writing (he’s a well established author of science fiction) but his handling of tension and complex plot lines is sure-footed. If that was all this novel offered I’d have rated the novel as a good one to read on a beach/sun l0unger
with eyes only half open. But this is a novel which brings Moscow and the Soviet system in the era before Glasnost vividly to life. This is a country divided between those who want to protect the centralised command and control model of the past and the newer political leaders like Gorbachev who see the future as one of reform and openness.
Into this maelstrom steps Cook, a hero who is as divided as the country in which he now has to operate. He’s a man very much at home with a very large flask of vodka. Alcohol is the only way he can deal with his demons; the despair over the death of his daughter and his failure as a father. His quest for Alex becomes a personal quest for salvation:
…. how could he explain he’d pinned his entire hope of redemption on finding Alex? He needed redemption as much as she needed saving. If she was still alive to be saved. if there was enough of him to be redeemed. He wouldn’t allow himself to leave the Soviet Union until that was done. He couldnt…
Tom knew how absurd that was, how arrogant, how messianic.
He didn’t care.
Like most of the characters Grimwood presents in Moskva, Cook is larger than life. But there’s enough of his back story, and enough of his ruminations on his failure as a father, a husband and soldier to feel that we want to be on his side; empathising when he suffers set backs, groaning when he seeks out yet another shot of vodka and cheering him on when he gets his breaks. Without him Moskva wouldn’t be half as good a novel. It would still be a good yarn but with him, Grimwood has delivered a stunningly readable, atmospheric, gripping novel.
The Daily Telegraph picked it as one of the best crime fiction novels of 2016. I won’t argue with that…..
Footnotes for Moskva by Jack Grimwood
- Published in hardback format: May 2016
- Paperback due out November 2016
- Publisher: Penguin
- Print Length: 480 pages
- Language: English
- Author webpage: http://www.jackgrimwood.com/index.html