Written by Sam Eastland — The Inspector Pekkala series began in 2010 with The Eye of the Red Tsar and now reaches its fifth novel. The books are set in the Soviet Union during WWII; specifically on the Eastern Front where Axis forces battled the Red Army from 1941 onwards after Hitler broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by invading the Soviet Union.
For those new to the series, as I was, Pekkala was born a Finn but travelled to Petrograd to enlist in Tsar Nicolas II’s elite Chevalier Guard. There his skill was noticed by the Tsar who picked out to become his special investigator, his so-called Emerald Eye. Following the Russian revolution he was sentenced to 30 years in the Siberian Gulag of Borodok, effectively a death sentence since average life expectancy at the camp was less than six months. However, for more than seven years he defied the odds, and was eventually brought back to Moscow by Joseph Stalin to act as his investigator.
The Beast in the Red Forest begins with Pekkala missing, thought to be dead, as a result of a mission told in the previous book, The Red Moth. His assistant, Kirov, believes his friend to be alive and is relieved when Stalin orders him to investigate Pekkala’s disappearance. A series of clues leads him to The Ukraine, where the Red Army holds an uneasy and ever-shifting alliance with partisan forces as they fight the invading German Army. If Kirov is to succeed he must overcome partisan suspicion of Moscow, a tricky thing to do when Stalin is already making plans to eliminate them once the battle with Germany is won. Adding to the risk is a secret German assassin, a man who harbours a long-standing grievance against the Emerald Eye, sent by the Abwehr to exploit this mistrust.
Eastland provides us with a strong, entertaining historical thriller as these two protagonists hunt for Pekkala in the frozen forests of the Ukraine. The depiction of the struggle of partisans and soldiers to survive is well done as is the portrayal of the monster Stalin, whose capricious mood swings could spell either salvation or disaster. The plotting, with one exception, is expertly done – a complicated jigsaw which Eastland handles likes an expert.
One flaw does let the book down. After the mystery in the Ukraine is resolved, a further twist is added; an assassination attempt on Stalin. It feels tacked on and unnecessary, and is an editorial misjudgement. Otherwise this is a fine addition to a popular series and I look forward with some anticipation to Eastland’s next book.
Faber and Faber
CFL Rating: 4 Stars