One of the constant delights of browsing in charity shops, book blogs and swapping sites is the random stumbling across of treasures. I had this experience earlier this year with Fred Basnett’s Travels of Capitalist Lackey, which attracted me by its title and turned out to be a wonderful travel book through Communist Russia. In a similar way, Murder in Moscow was a title that showed up on ReadItSwapIt and although I didn’t get my copy that way, I did find a very cheap, fat omnibus version of this tale (along with two others by the same author). I *love* finding a lost treasure and this turned out to be one!
Andrew Garve is the pseudonym of Paul Winterton, of whom Wikipedia says: “Paul Winterton (12 February 1908 – 8 January 2001) was an English journalist and crime novelist. Throughout his career, he used the pseudonyms Andrew Garve, Roger Bax and Paul Somers. He was a founder-member of the Crime Writers’ Association in 1953 and, with Elizabeth Ferrars, its first joint secretary.”
Just a few bare facts, but enough to intrigue. “Murder in Moscow” is set in that very city in 1951, behind the Iron Curtain, and it seems that Garve/Winterton had spent some time in Moscow as a correspondent during the Second World War so he was writing from first-hand experience.
The story’s narrator is George Verney, a journalist who is returning to Moscow as a correspondent, after having spent time there during the war (!) – so art is imitating life already. Verney is very fond of the country and the people, although critical of the regime, but is very much looking forward to visiting Russia again. Travelling on the same route as Verney is a British peace delegation, comprising a very motley crew, from a politician to a sculptor to a Welsh nationalist to an ordinary working man – you get the picture: an ideal closed group in which to set a murder mystery. And indeed, once in Moscow, after several days of being fed propaganda, things take a dramatic turn when the leader of the delegation is found with his skull cracked open. The Soviet authorities are quick to find a culprit by fitting up a harmless waiter as an enemy of the people. But Verney and his reporter colleagues are not so convinced, and a further complication occurs when Russian female friend of George’s American colleague Jeff, is suddenly whisked out of circulation. What was the motive of the murder, who did it and are there connections to activities during the war? And will George and Jeff be able to solve the mystery despite the hindrance of the Soviet authorities?
This is a really satisfying book on a number of levels. Firstly, it’s a great mystery – in fact, slightly a combination of murder mystery and thriller owing to the hints of espionage and tussles with Soviet bureaucracy. I had no idea who had done it or why, and was happy to just go along for the ride! It’s well written, the characters are a hoot and pretty well-developed for this kind of novel. There’s a spectacular twist which I didn’t pick up on, suspecting all the wrong people, and a gratifying ending! So for that alone this book is worth reading.
However, the Russian element added a special something to this work for me. Garve/Winterton so obviously knows and loves the Russian people and country, and there are some lovely descriptions of the place.
“After breakfast I sat at my window and watched the rolling countryside that runs in a picturesque belt thirty or forty miles west of Moscow. Perdita, in the corridor, was talking rather pretentiously to Islwyn about the ‘shape’ of the snow-laden silver birches, which were in fact very lovely. I was beginning to feel stirred myself now as old memories came crowding back to me. WE press correspondents had covered this ground pretty thoroughly after the German retreat…. No doubt things had changed a lot since then, but there were plenty of permanent things to make me nostalgic – the delicious whiff of wood-smoke in the crisp air when we were checked at a station, the smell of the tobacco substitute, makhorka, the squat peasants with their dangling ear-flaps and old felt boots and heavy wooden sleighs, the coloured churches and the log cabins with their carved wooden frames. I sank into a long reverie.”
In addition, he brings in glimpses of what it was like to live behind the iron curtain, with scenes of dodging tailing agents, meeting an Anglophile bibliophile citizen and seeing what his life is like, and coming to the realization of how powerful the state was and how ordinary people struggled to survive. He’s also very funny in places:
“…. there is no more congested place on earth than the Moscow metro and the behaviour of the public is not such as to assist a sleuth. A train comes in, packed to the doors, and stops at a crowded platform. The automatic doors slide open. Those inside fling themselves out. This outside fling themselves in. There is a frightful melee for perhaps half a minute, and then the doors remorselessly close. Fifty per cent of those who want to alight are carried on; fifty perfect of those who want to get on are left behind. This keeps the trains up to schedule and the service working efficiently.”
After reading “Murder in Moscow”, I did a bit of searching online and found that Andrew Garve is not so neglected as I might have thought! Bello Books, the POD and digital division of Pan Macmillan, have released a number of his books (including this one) which is great news for all fans of well plotted, well written thrillers! Well done Bello! I shall definitely be tracking down more Andrew Garve.