I am so, so excited to review Alexei Bayer’s book, Murder at the Dacha. If you’ve read the blog, you know that I’m a Russophile (Sovietophile?) and will pretty much devour any mystery or thriller set in Soviet Russia (current Russia works too), so be warned that the book plays to my strengths. I first heard about the book while skimming through Russian Life and promptly ordered my well-worth-it copy.
Bayer’s book is set in the early 1960s, a Soviet era not frequently addressed in literature (or non-fiction either). Many books focus on the Stalin era and while Stalin’s shadow lurks in the background (morphed into the form of KGB Colonel, Nakazov), it is somewhat refreshing to take a break from the sharply oppressive era that gave the world and her Russian citizens the “Great Terror”.
Murder at the Dacha introduces the reader to Pavel Matyushkin, a Moscow police detective who somewhat reluctantly stumbles into a murder investigation of a Soviet power broker. Returning home from a day of fishing with his girlfriend, Tosya, and her 10 year-old son, Sevka, Matyushkin intercedes when a man, Frezin, is harassing a young woman on a train. Matyushkin arrests Frezin and turns him over to the suburban authorities, assuming that is the end of that. A few days later Matyushkin is (seemingly) randomly assigned to investigate a murder at . . . you guessed it — a dacha, and within a week it turns out his co-investigators (from the very Moscow suburb where Matyushkin took Frezin from the train) have discovered evidence tying Frezin to the dacha murder. Matyushin doesn’t buy that Frezin did it, but before long the KGB gets involved (a Colonel Nakazov was “close” to the deceased’s family) and next thing you know, Frezin has been executed for the murder. Case closed. Or is it?
Among other things, I liked that Bayer gave us a few threads to follow. The plot was intricate but not convoluted. In addition, his characters were entertaining. Lenny, Matyushkin’s womanizing partner, could have been painted as a one-dimensional cad, but Bayer does a fine job infusing him with humanity and intelligence. Tosya, too, is feisty but at the same time much more willing to comply with Soviet expectations that Matyushkin. With Matyushkin, Bayer gives us not only a character who is steadfast and cuts against the grain, but one who is also thoughtful and somewhat gentle. In a nice scene, early in the book (just after Matyushin has deposited Frezin at the local police station), Bayer paints this picture:
Sevka sat at the other end of the bench holding his fishing rod. Poor guy, he was tired and sleepy, shivering and jerking his head now and again to stay awake. He started and asked, “Why didn’t you punch him, Uncle Pavel? Just to make sure he got the message?”
“Punch who?” I asked.
“The dangerous criminal.”
“He was already down.”
“Should I have punched him while he was out for the count?”
“Why not? I would. He’s a dangerous criminal. I would have really socked him one in the eye.”
“I think you’re getting carried away,” I said. Socking a person in the eye should be an extreme measure. Otherwise, it’s counterproductive.
Matyushkin knows he should walk away from the investigation, he cannot revive Frezin (or the bigwig who died at the dacha) but, along with Lenny, he decides to pick at the threads. During the course of the investigation Lenny meets the beautiful young daughter of the deceased, Lyuda, and begins a torrid affair with her that has rather disastrous results. Matyushkin crosses swords with Nakazov and the deceased’s widow, Anna Panateleyvna, also with disastrous results. He loses his job, his girlfriend and, almost, his life, but his dogged patience pays off in the end, for both Matyushkin and the reader. I won’t give away anything, but Bayer does answer all of your questions in the end, so there is a “pay off”.
I can’t wait to read Bayer’s second novel, The Latchkey Murders, also featuring Matyushkin and the gritty, real Moscow of the 1960s.