Take a bow, Sam Eastland.
The latest installment in his Inspector Pekkala mystery series, "Archive 17," may be the best one yet. "Eye of the Red Tsar" and "Shadow Pass" are novels that take place in Russia in the early decades of the 20th century (although a young Pekkala served under Czar Nicholas II in the late 1890s). They're richly told stories full of suspense and historical intrigue.
"Archive 17" is another chapter in that series, taking place at the outset of World War II. A former top official for the czar, Pekkala is a veteran Russian agent who has seen it all — revolutions, dictatorships, prison — in his lifetime. He's one tough bugger, someone who officially works for the regime but is smart enough to go with the flow in a tumultuous country. He knows that being loyal can sometimes mean death, even if that loyalty is to Josef Stalin.
Standing before Stalin, Pekkala cuts an imposing figure: "Pekkala was tall and broad-shouldered, with a straight nose and strong white teeth. Streaks of premature gray ran through his short dark hair. ... He wore a knee-length coat made of black wool. ... He stood with his hands tucked behind his back, the shape of a revolver in a shoulder holster just visible beneath the heavy cloth of his coat."
When the story begins, Stalin is in a very tense mood. It's September 1939, and Germany has just invaded Poland. Thanks to a secret pact with the Germans, the Russians are staying out of the war — for now. But the struggling country is in deep financial doo-doo, and the dictator needs to bolster the treasury. He orders a search for the legendary missing gold of Nicholas II, which is likely somewhere in Siberia. Some officials aren't sure if it even exists but who's gonna argue with Stalin?
Certainly not Pekkala, who is ordered by Stalin to go undercover and hunt for it in the area of the ghastly Borodok Labor Camp. Pekkala had been imprisoned at the camp after the fall of the Romanovs and had barely survived. Pekkala must earn the trust of a gang of convicts still loyal to Nicholas II who supposedly know the location of the gold. And Pekkala must contend with other rogue Siberian groups, the bitter cold, dreadful camp conditions, etc.
It's a seemingly impossible mission, and it grows tougher and more complex. Pekkala gets more than he bargained for at the camp when he discovers the truth about a murdered inmate and the existence of Archive 17, a set of long-lost files that could prove damaging to the Stalin regime. Finding, securing and returning the gold (if it exists) back to Moscow may be the easy part of the mission.
"Archive 17" is told in one long narrative, with no chapters. It is meticulously researched and has plenty of twists and turns. Eastland, a British author who lives part time in the United States, likes to flip back and forth between the current story and episodes in Pekkala's past, including during the czar regime. It's a device that works well most of the time and helps the reader better understand the inspector.
Eastland keeps the story straightforward and simple; there's not many main characters and subplots. A novel that takes place in Russia may not excite a lot of American readers, but fans of suspense fiction should embrace "Archive 17."
Eastland's 'Archive 17' best yet in mystery series
Take a bow, Sam Eastland.