If you pop into the Ramblings on any kind of a regular basis, you’ll be well aware of my love of crime writing. Nowadays, it tends to be mainly geared towards Golden Age mysteries, but in the past I’ve read many more contemporary works as well as a good number of spy-type works. Today’s book, a recent release from V&Q Books, falls firmly into the latter category; it’s an entertaining yarn set in modern day Ukraine with a surreal twist! The title is “Odesa at Dawn” written by Sally McGrane, an American-born author based in Germany but who’s lived in Odesa – and it’s clear she knows and loves the city!

Set in a time before the current conflict, the story follows an ex-CIA man, Max Rushmore, who’s sent to Odesa on a routine assignment. Max is a somewhat hapless character, and things soon start to go awry for him; the severed hand of the local governor is found in a vat of sunflower oil; Max comes upon a detached toe with the same markings as the hand; and needless to say, he sets off to investigate.

The city of Odesa is in a volatile state, with conflict between the governor and the mayor; the local mafia and the criminal underbelly of the place are all out to get what they can via the many corrupt officials; and there are of course tensions with neighbouring Russia which threaten to bubble up to the surface (and, of course, we all know how that’s going…) Will Max get to the bottom of things without being damaged (at the very least…)? Will his wife accept that he won’t be back in the USA in time for an important meeting she has lined up to start on a very different, and much more respectable career, or will she throw her hat into the ring? What is going on beneath the city? And what on earth are all the cats of Odesa up to??? Well, you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out!

As you might have gathered, there’s a lot going on in “Odesa…” and it makes for gripping and entertaining reading. The plot is a complex one which weaves in the history of its setting, blending the past and future of the city beautifully. McGane uses her extensive knowledge of Odesa to draw in the influences of previous residents like Babel and Gogol, and the former’s fictional gangster, Benya Krik. The place seems to exert a magnetic influence on those who’ve lived there or were born there, and all manner of characters are involved in the action, from the local poet Fishman who blogs about life in the city, to Sima the beautiful pastry-chef, who is adored from afar by Mr. Smiley…

Ah yes – the cats! As well as the real life-criminal element, there is an underground mafia which exists in the world of cats, and Mr. Smiley is one of the bigshots! He and his feline team observe the action, unsuspected by humans, and shed an interesting light on the nefarious activities of the humans. They have an important role in the resolution of the plot, and I would have rather liked to see more of them!

Although the bumbling investigator Max is ostensibly the main character, the star of the book is, of course, Odesa itself. McGane paints a wonderful portrait of the city, one which, as Lizzy has noted in her review, is not always flattering. I personally find the book even more appealing because of that nuanced portrayal; although often humorous and entertaining, there are points where the narrative goes to darker places, exploring the horrors of the past; the Jewish characters in particular have suffered much. The are reflections on a kind of mortality that applies to cities as well as people, as it’s noted that Odesa is sinking into the sand in many places. No doubt the labyrinth of catacombs which exists under the city, and which provides thrilling and surreal escapades in the book, have something to do with this…

“Odesa at Dawn” was a wonderful read, from the opening pages where we first meet Mr. Smiley to the dramatic ending on stormy high seas. McGane’s love for Odesa shines through from start to finish, and as well as providing an entertaining and often dramatic read, she’s also painted a marvellous picture of the city. Babel’s translator, Boris Dralyuk, has advised readers to “come for the story, but don’t forget to take in the sights,” and he’s not wrong – highly recommended!