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Saturday 19 March 2016

‘Black Knight in Red Square’ by Stuart M Kaminsky

Published by Overlook Duckworth
(reprint, 13 August 2015.
ISBN: 978-0-7156-5003-5 (PB)

Moscow, 1980s. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, under First Secretary Yuri Andropov, keeps iron control on all aspects of Soviet life. Soviet society has to be presented to the world as the ideal society: to give an example, there are no laws banning prostitution because, officially, there is no prostitution although Moscow is thronged with pathetic women who are indeed prostitutes. Four visitors at the Metropole Hotel, Moscow, are found dead by poisoning, certainly not accidental. One was an American journalist, Warren Harding Aubrey, who had been attending the Moscow Film Festival, two were Russian businessmen, and the fourth was Japanese, also here for the Festival. Because the American journalist is well-known in his own country the deaths have to be investigated successfully. So Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov, famously discreet, is brought in to solve the mystery while also brushing any ‘difficult’ aspects under the carpet. It seems to him that the prime target of poisoning was Aubrey and was probably connected with a list that Aubrey had of others attending the film festival whom he intended to interview. However, Rostnikov is informed by Colonel Drozhkin of the KGB that it appears that the killing is political after all; a ‘group of fanatics, capitalist terrorists with members from several countries, who seek to drive the Soviet Union into conflict with the West.’ It is clear to Rostnikov that Drozhkin is striving to involve him in such a way that if there is an act of terrorism he, and not the KGB, will be blamed, and reinforced by veiled threats against his son, who has seen military service in Afghanistan, and his Jewish wife. So Rostnikov, in a world in which double-speak is the rule, has to solve the mystery and find the terrorists.

This is a complex and fascinating tale about a time in world affairs when the Cold War was still at its height. Ironically, before very long, things would change radically. Unknown to the people of the Soviet Union, although suspected by the West, Andropov was very ill and would die in 1987. His successor was even more short-lived, and would be succeeded by Mikhail Gorbachev. The world would change. The prose style tends towards the detached but this does enable a certain amount of explanatory material (vital in understanding the political context) to be included without seeming out of place. My only reservation is that as the narrative is from several points of view there should be a break between every switch from one point of view to another. Failure to provide such breaks makes the narrative in some places hard to follow. Nonetheless it is worth persevering with.
Reviewer: Radmila May

Stuart M. Kaminsky (1934-2009) was one of the most prolific crime fiction authors of the last four decades. Born in Chicago, he spent his youth immersed in pulp fiction and classic cinema--two forms of popular entertainment which he would make his life's work. After college and a stint in the army, Kaminsky wrote film criticism and biographies of the great actors and directors of Hollywood's Golden Age. In 1977, when a planned biography of Charlton Heston fell through, Kaminsky wrote Bullet for a Star, his first Toby Peters novel, beginning a fiction career that would last the rest of his life.
Kaminsky penned twenty-four novels starring the detective, whom he described as "the anti-Philip Marlowe." In 1981's Death of a Dissident, Kaminsky debuted Moscow police detective Porfiry Rostnikov, whose stories were praised for their accurate depiction of Soviet life. His other two series starred Abe Lieberman, a hardened Chicago cop, and Lew Fonseca, a process server. In all, Kaminsky wrote more than sixty novels. He died in St. Louis in 2009.
Radmila May was born in the US but has lived in the UK ever since apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and has been working for them off and on ever since. For the last few years she was one of three editors working on a new edition of a practitioners' text book on Criminal Evidence by her late husband; the book has now been published thus giving her time to concentrate on her own writing. She also has an interest in archaeology in which subject she has a Diploma.

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