Harlequin’s Costume by Leonid Yuzefovich

When it comes to ticking the boxes for a perfect read for me, this book really should have it all – set in St. Petersburg, written by a Russian and featuring a crime story with a real-life historical detective as the protagonist. I popped it on my wish list and Youngest Child decided it would be a good thing to send my way for Mothering Sunday – which was remarkably sensible. But did it live up to my expectations? Well, yes and no…

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The author is Leonid Yuzefovich who, the publisher’s website tell us, grew up in Perm, in the Ural Mountains. He is a historian with twin interests in Old Russian diplomacy and Mongolia, the country where he spent three years in the Soviet army. Autocrat of the Desert is Yuzefovich’s biography of Baron Ungern-Shternberg, a Russian adventurer and anti-Bolshevik who set himself up as a warlord in Mongolia during the Russian Civil War. Yuzefovich has published many stories, essays, novels, and historical monographs, and won several prizes, including 2001 National Bestseller prize for Prince of the Wind, another installment in the Putilin trilogy, and Russia’s 2009 Big Book Award for his contemporary novel Cranes and Pygmies. Since 2000s Yuzefovich works on television, writing screenplays for historical serials and works on film adaptation of his novels.

So that’s quite an impressive resume, and this volume is the first of the so-called Putilin trilogy, named after the famous detective. “Russia Behind the Headlines” tells us of the real-life man that Ivan Dmetrievich Putilin was a legend in his own lifetime. From 1866 until 1893 he chased St. Petersburg’s most notorious criminals as chief inspector of police. Later contemporaries called him “the Russian Sherlock Holmes,” according to Louise McReynolds’ new book “Murder Most Russian.”

The story opens with Putilin planning to write his memoirs. He’s employed Safonov as a biographer-cum-ghost writer and at points in the story the narrative digresses into a conversation between the two. Putilin starts to recall one of his most notorious cases, that of the murder of Prince von Ahrensburg, an Austrian military attaché. The man has been found smothered in his bed, and the case is not as straightforward as it might seem. There is a mistress and her husband; some dubious servants; various rival political allies and enemies; plus a surprising amount of people who seem keen to confess to the murder. Add to this rumours of a werewolf in St. Petersburg and a notorious criminal on the loose, and it seems that the author is weaving quite a tangled web!

The politics of the time (late 1800s) were complicated and St. Petersburg was policed by the regular force and also the gendarmes (the security forces). The two bodies come into constant conflict, with Putilin trying to avoid just about everybody and investigate the case himself. Eventually, of course, he will find the solution and all will be resolved, but I challenge anyone to guess the outcome!

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The book was a very good read, but I did have a couple of issues with it. The structure was a little unusual, with sudden transitions from the story itself back to the conversations between Putilin and Safanov, which did tend to distract a little from the main story. I wondered whether this was perhaps to remind the reader that we were perhaps dealing with an unreliable narrator, though I wasn’t convinced this worked entirely as he seemed to be a rather omniscient one! There was also a slightly jerky quality to some of the description which sat a little uncomfortably.

The other slight problem I had was a lack of characterisation in some of the subsidiary characters. There are a lot of them, with a number of different roles within the storyline, and to be honest they were never really introduced or defined enough for my liking; to the extent that I struggled a little to differentiate between them at times.

However, these quibbles aside, I did love the atmosphere of old St. Petersburg conjured up by the book; the writing and descriptions were excellent in places; and Putilin himself is a wonderful character, well portrayed and very funny in places. I shall definitely explore more of the series if further books are translated and may well see if I can track down the TV series to see what Russian TV has made of the “Russian Sherlock Holmes”!

(For further reading, there is the little piece here on Russia Beyond the Headlines which is worth checking out).

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