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14 November 2018

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Murder at the Dacha

By Alexei Bayer

We love mysteries set in a foreign land. Case in point the works of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.D. James. Or Stieg Larrson, Kiran Desai and Umberto Eco.

It may even be that, the more distant and mysterious the land, the more interesting the mystery. Which might be fueling the surging popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction in recent years. Or maybe that is just publishers trying to reproduce the lightning strike of the Dragon Tattoo series.

In recent decades, mysteries situated in Russia have for the most part been penned by western authors (Martin Cruz Smith, David Benioff, Tom Rob Smith, Sam Eastland, etc.), with the works of Boris Akunin being the notable exception. Sure, plenty of mysteries are now published in Russia, in Russian, but very few of them get translated into English. And that is a shame, since fiction in the mystery genre can often be not only popular, but also very “literary,” adroitly examining human motivations, character and actions under the stress of highly unusual situations.

Of the three books reviewed here, all are set in Russia. Only Bayer’s is written by a Russian (and, of course, it is published by Russian Life Books, so my bias is all over my sleeves). And that certainly shows. There is a knowing feel of the Russian reality in Bayer’s writing, in the way characters interact with each other, in the powerful undercurrent of fatalism, in the telling grasp of detail and the lilt of speech – even in translation (which is Bayer’s own).

Murder at the Dacha takes place in 1963, a time of relative Thaw in Soviet society, yet distant enough from our time to be all the more foreign. The carefully unfolding plot centers around the murder of a high ranking apparatchik, a famous currency dealing case, and turf battles between city and regional militia, with considerable KGB interference.

The indefatigable Detective Matyushkin is very much a stand-in for the everyman. Sherlock Holmes, despite the ribbing he takes from lesser cops, he is not. Plodding and determined, definitely. And very likable and believable, if only for that fact that his love for his girlfriend Toska seems to just barely eclipse his love for his Zundapp motorcycle.

The plot moves along at a steady pace and builds to an excellent climax with several satisfying twists. Murder at the Dacha is has a rich cast of complex and believable characters and a deeply nuanced recreation of Soviet life in the 1960s.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: July/Aug 2013