Eastland, Sam - 'The Red Coffin'
It's 1939 and Stalin and Hitler are busy pretending they aren't going to have a war whilst busily preparing for it. Stalin is pinning his hopes on the Konstantin Project - the development of T-34 tank headed by a Colonel Nagorski - so he's very upset to find out that there's a security leak somewhere. So he gives Pekkala, the special investigator brought back from Siberia in EYE OF THE RED TSAR, a 'shadow pass' which apparently gives its owner carte blanche to do anything to anyone in the USSR, and tells him to find out what's going on.
Pekkala and Kirov arrive at the Konstantin site just in time to find that Colonel Nagorski is dead. The colonel was testing the engines of a prototype T34, and was found crushed under the tracks of his own 30-ton creation. The colonel's subordinates claim that it's just about possible that he could have run himself over with his own tank, and the NKVD investigating officer is quite happy to have the death classed as a freak tank-driving accident. Pekkala spoils the consensus by insisting on a proper investigation of the corpse, leading to the discovery that Nagorski was murdered. Obviously, it's then up to Pekkala to solve the murder as well as thwart the German spies.
This is an excellent second novel, somewhat surprisingly set 10 years after the first in the series. It'll be interesting to see if the next book will jump another 10 years, or if Mr Eastland plans to fill in the missing decade or having Pekkala work his way through The Great Patriotic War.
Pekkala's sidekick Kirov has grown in confidence - he has had a decade working with Pekkala to grow into his rank - and has taken to giving Pekkala advice about food and fashion. Pekkala himself doesn't seem to have changed much, still cautious and wary, and still mildly despondent at other people's foolishness.
There are numerous well-drawn supporting characters - various tank designers, NVKD officials, Nagorski's family - who show the disadvantages of being overly naive, cynical or human under Stalin. The story moves at a good speed throughout, with the right number of convincing twists, culminating in a fairly bizarre chase sequence.
As in the previous book, Pekkala spends much of the time remembering his happy days as most favoured agent of the Tsar. These flashbacks aren't quite a cheerful as before, as the majority centre on a triangular conflict between Pekkala, the Tsar and the Tsarina (with added influence from Rasputin). Moderately confusingly one flashback only goes as far back as the end of EYE OF THE RED TSAR, and one flashback is actually incorporated into a non-flashback chapter. These are minor niggles about typeface in an otherwise gripping book.An attractive feature of the first book was a timeline giving the real history of the period, so it's a little disappointing that RED COFFIN doesn't have one. A character claims that, even before they've finished designing it the T-34 has been nicknamed 'The Red Coffin' (it seems a little odd that the people giving it this rather unencouraging monicker are the same people saying it'll be a war-winning weapon, invulnerable to anything Hitler can field against it); not having heard this before I tried Google and only got reviews of Sam Eastland's book. It'd be nice to know...
Rik Shepherd, England