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Field of Mars

by Stephen Miller

Russian mystery and thriller writers are currently doing extremely well in the West, most notably Boris Akunin – two of whose policiers are being turned into feature films – and Yulia Latynina, whose stinging odes to Putin-era politics are scheduled for English publication next year. Interestingly, the popularity of native authors has made things difficult for a group of already endangered talents – the “Gorky Parkers.” Named after Martin Cruz Smith’s groundbreaking 1981 mystery, these are authors who aren’t Russian but who write about the place, often very skillfully (Gorky Park is still as intricate and fascinating as a Fabergé egg).

The collapse of communism has altered the territory. Since the statues came down, Russian life has become too complex and accelerated for foreign authors to plausibly get a handle on, let alone make up a fictional detective and send him down those newly mean streets. For the writer whose Russian status is nyet, only one safe place remains: the past.

Vancouver-based Stephen Miller has set Field of Mars in St. Petersburg in 1913. The city is holding its breath. Three centuries of Romanov rule have led to an ineffectual Tsar, a starving peasantry, military forces straining at the leash, chaos in the far reaches of the Empire, and in the capital, pinch-faced citizens going about their business as both revolutionaries and corrupt officials conspire in the taverns. It is an era of nervous splendour. It is a good time for lawlessness.

On a June morning in a canalside neighbourhood, investigator Pyotr Ryzkhov of the secret police is assigned to check out a minor death: the suicide of a child prostitute. But there are complications and repercussions. A young witness, a dancer named Vera, claims that the girl has been murdered. Ryzkhov and Vera become lovers, then partners, but the confusion and mistrust surrounding the investigation soon drive them apart. At the same time, a disaffected aristocrat, Sergei Andriev, is assembling the players in a coup d’état – a plan to provoke the country into war in the Balkans, a conflagration that would not only topple the ineffectual Tsar but enlarge the Andriev business holdings.

The novel’s political, criminal, and sexual plotlines converge in the east, where Ryzkhov – in a time-honoured race against the clock – attempts to stop the assassination of a visiting dignitary. The man in the carriage is Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the place is Sarajevo, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Field of Mars displays all the hallmarks of a fine literary thriller, except one. The plot is satisfyingly labyrinthine; the characters are haunted and thoughtful; the historical backdrop is impeccable and affecting; and the events and changes of scene grip the imagination. Mud, snow, blood – we’re there. The problem is the literary side. Miller has a wildly uneven style. Clichés are all over the place, as are stretches of compelling writing. Ryzkhov is described as needing a shave and a haircut – how many gumshoes don’t? Dialogue is made to do the work of the narrative: “Yes. Your idea was good. Blackmail him, bind him to us for as long as we need him.” And the action can descend as low as, “She whirled at the sound of his voice.” The character of Vera is particularly frustrating: a scrawny vixen with bared teeth, she’s always spitting, hissing, or sobbing – the woman has been given so many spitfire qualities that she’s in danger of exploding.