Back in August last year, I took part in a Twitter readalong (organised by the lovely @ReemK10) of a book and author new to me; the book was “Klotsvog” by Margarita Khemlin, issued by the indie publisher, Columbia University Press, in their Russian Library imprint. Reading Khemlin was a powerful experience, so I was very excited to be contacted by Glagoslav, another favourite indie, who revealed they had published another Khemlin novel some years ago. That book is “The Investigator” (translated by Melanie Moore) and they were kind enough to provide a review copy which I was very keen to explore for #ReadIndies – and I was most definitely rewarded for that exploration…

I’m not sure how much work Khemlin had published before her early death in 2015, but as far as I’m aware only the two novels plus a handful of short stories have made it into English. Born in Chernihiv, also known as Chernigov, which was then a part of Soviet Ukraine, Wikipedia describes her as “Jewish-Ukrainian”; and the few facts given here are in fact incredibly relevant to her work. “The Investigator” was, I believe, her last novel and it really is a powerful piece of writing.

The book is set mainly in Chernigov in the early 1950s, and is narrated by the titular character, one Mikhail Ivanovich Tsupkoy, a Captain in the local police. Following on from service in the army during the war, he’s been absorbed into the police force, and one day is given the chance of investigating a murder – that of Lilia Vorobeichik, a Jewish woman who’s been stabbed in the back. The case seems clear enough – as Mikhail puts it, “In the normal course of events, Jews were rarely murdered.” – and so a paramour of the dead woman is the obvious culprit and does indeed confess to the murder, before hanging himself. Case closed, then, and congratulations for the Police Captain on his first murder case? Well, yes and no…

Despite the apparent closing of the case Mikhail is not satisfied and continues to hang around the area of the dead woman’s home. The murder weapon is missing which is unsettling, and then Lilia’s twin sister Eva turns up, causing consternation. There seem to be rumours circulating that there’s something unfinished about the case, and as Mikhail carries on digging he becomes embroiled with a number of characters from the local Jewish community. There are more deaths, more rumours, and the plot becomes increasingly complex as Mikhail tries to dodge insinuations and find out the truth behind the death of Lilia. There are hints of all manner of conspiracies, and tentacles reaching back to the war. As the narrative moves on, Mikhail reveals more about himself and his past, and it seems his story may be a little unreliable. The twists and turns of the story disclose much about the Soviet world of that era, and at times you wonder whether a solution will be revealed. What is the reality behind Lilia’s death – and why does the devious dressmaker Polina Lvovna Laevskaya seem to be involved in everything?

The plot of this wonderful book is a complex and deeply involving one, and so I’m not going to give any more in the way of detail, as one of the strengths of this book is how it keeps you hooked as things are gradually revealed and the reasons for events becomes clear. However, what runs strongly through the story (as with “Klotsvog”) is the lives and fates of Jewish people in the Soviet Union. The dating of the story is very relevant; the early 1950s saw much change in the USSR, including the death of Stalin. Cleverly, Khemlin doesn’t reference the big events directly; instead, she deals with life on a local level (and in a place she obviously knew well) and only hints at what’s happening nationally. She’s such a good writer that simply having a character express fear of Jewish doctors in white coats will tell the reader who knows a bit about Soviet history just what she’s referring to… And that cleverness extends to other parts of the book, where she can hint at an event in just a sentence or two which throws your whole understanding of the story and its narrator into a different light.

Sometimes, I pay too much attention to looking inside and the surface is left without due operational oversight. I look for complications where there are none. Older and more experienced comrades have pointed it out to me, but I complicate matters.… Sometimes, I took it into account. And sometimes I let slip the opportunity for simplicity.

Ah yes – our narrator… Initially, Mikhail paints a portrait of himself as a happily married man with a daughter, simply doing his job. Like many of the non-Jewish characters in the book he expresses anti-Semitic views, and his attitude highlights many of the tensions which exist for the Jewish community attempting to assimilate into the Soviet world, particularly after the end of the War. Of course, some don’t want to assimilate, and the holding on to old practices also becomes an issue. As the narrative moves on, a complex backstory is gradually revealed which leads to the events at the start of the book; and it becomes clear that the lot of a Jewish person during the war was a dreaful one, with shocking treatment from both Soviet and enemy sides.

It’s hard to convey how good this book is without going into detail which could give major spoilers to a potential reader. Khemlin is absolutely brilliant at capturing the voice of a very singular narrator (it was the same with “Klotsvog”) and completely sucking you into their world. As we follow Mikhail’s voice leading us through the twists and turns of the case, it’s clear that things are actually not as they originally seemed and the reality is darker than anyone could have realised at the start of the book. “The Investigator” is a story which reveals the blackest treatment meted out to Jewish people and it often makes painful reading; parts of the reveal are heartbreaking and unforgettable. The book is gripping from start to finish, and Khemlin is an honest author in that her characters are never black or white, good or bad, but realistic. All have their faults, all are human – but none deserve the treatment they get…

Of course, underlying the narrative is an element that was woven cleverly into “Klotsvog” (and also a more recent work set in Soviet times, “Punishment of a Hunter“) and that’s a portrait of what it was to live under the Soviet regime particularly if you were Jewish. There is the constant risk of being reported to the authorities for something anti-Soviet you might or might not have done; and the feeling of conspiracy and secrecy which swirls round Mikhail could just be part of that time and place, or could be something more.

“The Interrogator” turned out to be an outstanding read, and a really powerful and thought-provoking one. Khemlin’s writing is brillliant, her characterisation excellent and her setting vividly captured and conveyed. Her narrative is compelling from start to finish, with Mikhail the most unreliable narrator, and the stories of the terrible treatment of the Jewish community are tragic. Although you could perhaps read this book on a surface level as simply a murder mystery, there’s so much more to it. I have no idea why Margarita Khemlin and her books are not better known, but they should be; “The Investigator” was definitely one of my top reads for #ReadIndies, and kudos to Glagoslav and Melanie Moore for bringing it to us.


For other thoughts on the book, you can check out these two excellent blogs:

Lisa at ANZLitlovers

The Modern Novel

It’s worth noting that I wrote and scheduled this review before the current horrors began. My heart goes out to all suffering in the conflict, and I hope there will be a peaceful resolution soon…