Written by Tom Callaghan — The afterword to Tom Callaghan’s debut gives some advice for anyone planning on traveling to Kyrgyzstan – hotels to stay at and tours to take – but reading A Killing Winter didn’t make me want to go out and buy a ticket for the next flight. The central Asian nation and former Soviet outpost is painted as an inhospitable place, covered in mud and snow, and Bishkek a city dripping with corruption, drugs and violence.
When a woman is found brutally slaughtered in the snow, Akyl Borubaev of the Bishkek murder squad knows straight away that this isn’t the usual murder of a prostitute or drug addict. A few things just don’t sit right. The woman is too beautiful, too classy, and not the kind who would be stumbling out in the snow on a winter’s night. The cuts inflicted on her body are the work of a steady hand who knows what it’s doing, not a drunk’s hatchet job. And then there’s the little matter of the foetus that was found inside her – a child that wasn’t hers.
The grisly nature of this crime means the pressure is on Borubaev to solve the crime before anyone else dies. But when he finds out who the dead woman was – the daughter of a high-level government official who had somehow survived all of the country’s numerous revolutions – then the pressure really starts to mount. And with it the body count. Borubaev finds people from all sides encouraging him to solve the crimes for them, sometimes encouraging him quite violently.
Borubaev is a hurt man. He recently buried his wife after her death from cancer, and he’s giving up alcohol, replacing it with cigarettes. He puts himself above the drug addicts and pimps in the Kyrgyz capital, and the corrupt cops and politicians that are constantly on his tale. The problem is that it’s never really clear why Borubaev feels that he is different – he has a perspective on life in Bishkek that it’s hard to believe comes from someone who has never left the country. The author explains how Borubaev is different to his countrymen, but doesn’t really explain why. It seems that more character depth is given to the enigmatically beautiful Saltanat, who may or may not be a member of the Uzbek security forces sent to Kyrgyzstan to agitate. The relationship between Kyrgyzstan and its neighbours features heavily in A Killing Winter, yet it still feels as if it’s on the outside looking in.
The outskirts of the former Soviet Union are a perfect setting for dark and dirty crime fiction – kind of like Nordic noir with even more vodka. Martin Cruz Smith‘s Arkady Renko led the way, showing the Soviet Union crumbling from the centre, while Andrey Kurkov’s novels set in modern Ukraine, borrow heavily from crime fiction to paint an absurdist post-Soviet Kiev. In many ways Callaghan is the logical follow-on from these authors, shining a light on a part of the world most of us couldn’t find on the map. The issues with the authenticity of the detective don’t detract from the pace and tight plotting of this very good debut. Luckily, A Spring Betrayal is in the works, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of the Bishkek that Tom Callaghan paints.
A Killing Winter will be released on 5 November. Check out more Non-Nordic cold climate crime.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars