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14 November 2018

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Book Review

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by A.N. Miller

If you have ever admired the somewhat cynical, jaded tone of the Economist’s reporting from Russia, then you will love this book. While the plot is rather predictable (love/hate Russia, lust/blind infatuation with a Russian woman, apartment deal slowly going sour), the writing is brilliant, infused with the gritty, jaundiced eye of someone who has spent years in Russia, sees all its dark spots, yet loves it anyway. Exhibit A: Miller’s description of a Zhiguli parked near his building:

"It had mud and oil up its flanks, like a tank might after a battle,? a dark crust that, if you were frank with yourself, you knew was how your insides probably looked after a few years in Moscow, and maybe your soul too."

Exhibit B: A description of one of the main antagonists: "The Cossack had one of those senses of humour that is really a kind of warfare. Laughing at his jokes made you feel guilty, not laughing at them made you feel endangered. His personal inquiries always felt like a prelude to blackmail."

The main character, Nick Platt, a hapless, disaffected British lawyer who has spent too long in Moscow, is a bit hard to like. And Miller treads a fine line making Nick come off as both highly cynical and utterly gullible, yet he pulls it off.

But it is with his minor characters that Miller hits the high notes. Most notably Nick’s drinking buddy, Steve Walsh, an even more cynical expat, perhaps because he (like the author) is a journalist. When Nick tries to find out about the oil story Steve is working on, Steve only replies, “In Russia, there are no business stories. And there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories.” Which tells you, in a nutshell, what this book is about.

There is not a lot of action in this book. It is a psychological crime story that unfolds slowly, and the reader is always two steps ahead of the clueless Nick. But we don’t mind, because that seems to be Miller’s intent. Plus, it is so enjoyable to read his pitch-perfect descriptions of Russian life [“Any Russian who has power over you (notary, ambulance man, waiter) is obliged to make you wait before they help you, so you know they can.”], that the story drags you in. Not unlike a highly profitable, but unsavory business deal.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: May/June 2011