Two excellent thrillers – Moskva and The Ice

Moskva by Jack Grimwood

You may know Grimwood through his literary novel The Last Banquet written as John Grimwood, or his fantasy/crime novels written as Jon Courtenay Grimwood. I’ve not read any of them, although I do own The Last Banquet, which I remember was very well received. It’s certainly going up my pile, having read his first straight crime novel Moskva, published last year. The cover proclaims ‘Even better than Child 44’ – a puff from the Daily Telegraph, and yes – I do think Moskva is better than Child 44 – read my thoughts on the latter here.  Both novels owe a debt though to Martin Cruz Smith’s Renko novels of the 1980s onwards; Gorky Park, the first in that series is wonderful.

Like Gorky Park, Moskva begins with a body by the Kremlin wall.  This time, it’s a boy, twelve or thirteen years old, naked, all hair shaved and with a mutilated hand. The body is also frozen. Minister Vedenin inspects:

‘He can’t have been here long enough to freeze.’
The old man was readying himself to stand when he paused and covered his action by tapping for a second time on the white marble of the frozen boy’s chest, pretending to listen to its dull thud. Then he checked that he’d seen what he thought he’d seen.
Almost entirely hidden in the boy’s mutilated hand was a tiny wax angel.
That was unnerving enough. What was more unnerving still was that the angel had the boy’s face. Glancing up, to make sure he wasn’t being watched, the old man plamed the angel and pocketed it.
There was a message in the whiteness of the wax.

Cut to a party at the British embassy. and we meet Major Tom Fox, a new import to Moscow. He’s lurking on the balcony having a cigarette, when he’s joined by a teenaged girl who bums a cigarette. This is Alice, the stepdaughter of Sir Edward Masterton the British Ambassador.  She will go missing and Tom will be given the task of finding her – until he becomes persona non grata with the embassy, assumed to have gone rogue. Tom starts investigating and soon more bodies of young people turn up and he begins to get in very deep. The Russians know though…  Although set in 1985-6, under new Soviet leader Gorbachev, the seeds of the story were sown back in the siege of Stalingrad and as the novel progresses, there are flashbacks to follow a group of soldiers back then.

Fox is a typical damaged man. A would-be priest who gave it up for love, joined the army and saw service in Belfast. He is separated from his wife, their marriage broke up after their teenaged  daughter died in a car crash. Ostensibly he is engaged in a study of the state of religion in Russia, but it’s also keeping away from Northern Ireland investigations. He’s complicated, but fit and resourceful, when not drunk at his new friend Dennisov’s bar.

The politics involved in this novel are labyrinthine, but what Grimwood does cleverly by setting the main story just into the new era of glasnost means that many of the generation of Soviets that Fox meets in his quest are very different to their forebears who lived under Stalin.  In ex-soldier Dennisov, who made his own tin leg, to young Sveta, a young policewoman, Fox has created superb foils for his English hero, who, now I come to think of it, rather reminds me of spy novelist Mick Herron‘s action-hero-spook River Cartwright in his superb Slough House novels, fans of these may well enjoy Moskva. I hope that we’ll get to see more of Fox – on his next posting perhaps?  (9/10)

Source: Present – thanks Norm.

Jack Grimwood, Moskva (Penguin, 2016) paperback, 480 pages.

The Ice by Laline Paull

You may forgiven for thinking that Paull’s first novel, The Bees (see here) couldn’t be more different to her second The Ice.  They are styles apart, but both have a strong environmental message, and both are political thrillers.  That’s where the theme comparisons end though. The Ice is a traditional eco-political thriller, full of humans – in all their niceness, nastiness, manipulating – or being manipulated.

Our setting is the near future. The Arctic summer sea ice has permanently melted, enabling trans-polar shipping which now Suez is shut is a boon to the world’s import/export business.

It begins with a high class cruise ship in the Arctic off Svalbard. The paying customers have been promised polar bear sightings, and they will sue if they don’t get one! Bear remotely located, the captain enters a restricted fjord – they see the bear, but then the glacier ‘calves’ – chunks fall into the sea near a cave opening. One of the passengers is filming:

She filmed the water slapping and rocking at its base, and the cave of deepening blue ice where the water surged and circled. Something swirled at its centre, making the current waver. Something that had not been there a moment ago.
Without tking her eye from the viewfinder, she reached out a hard for her husband. She pulled him towards her and gave him the camera, still recording. She pointed to the red shape rocking just below the surface.
‘John,’ she said softly, ‘is that a body?’

The main story involves the friendship between Sean Cawson and Tom Harding. They bonded as students over a love of the Arctic, but then their lives diverged. Tom became an eco-warrior with Greenpeace, and Sean a successful businessman under the tutelage of his mentor, the American Joe Kingsmith. But their lives converge again, when Sean wins a contract to allow him to build an eco-retreat for the world’s movers and shakers on Svalbard; having Tom on board gives it the credibility he needs.  The centre, named Midgard, is built and ready for business, but it all goes wrong though when Tom arrives to see it. He and Sean go out to explore a cave in the glacier, but Tom dies in an accident which Sean survives, It’s Tom’s body that appears when the ice ‘calves’.

Paull tells the story in several strands.   We have the current one, where Sean must relive that awful event when his best friend died at the inquest. All kinds of shady facts and dealings begin to emerge as the interested parties sift through what happened.  Ruth, Tom’s on-off girlfriend, and Tom’s family need answers that only Sean and his consortium can answer, and both the UK and Norwegian governments are listening too. This legal drama contrasts with the backstory of how the men met, and their onward lives and relationships. Paull cleverly weaves all these strands around each other to create a compelling read, gradually introducing shock after shock, especially for Sean.

For a successful businessman in a cuthroat industry, Sean does turn out to be rather naive, and his former egotism will be drummed out of him. Paull writes him so we can still sympathise, despite his millions. He may be rather gullible, and not a little idealistic, but Tom’s death and his marriage break-up have left him a damaged man – we can’t help but be on his side. The other three members of Sean’s consortium are all interesting characters too. There’s Kingsmith of course, but the two women, Martine – Sean’s partner now in life as well as business is fascinating on several levels, and the Chinese entrepreneur, Radiance Young, who can’t pronounce Martine’s name calling her Martin, hides a steely interior under her bubbly surface!  There are moments of melodrama and, conversely, other moments that threaten to bog the plot down, but the politics and environmental message are clear and I kept turning the pages gripped by the evolving story. I enjoyed The Ice a lot. (8.5/10)

Source: Review copy.

Laline Paull, The Ice (4th Estate, May 2017) Hardback, 384 pages.  (paperback out in Jan).

9 thoughts on “Two excellent thrillers – Moskva and The Ice

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      If you don’t think too long and hard about the business side of things and the naivety of the hero, it is a well-written and enjoyable page-turner.

  1. Col says:

    The Ice is currently on my pile waiting. Although haven’t read Moskva have listened to it and it kept me company on a lot of dog walks last year. As an audiobook I really liked it – characters and plot were good though it maybe was a wee bit over long for listening to – it maybe had a couple of twists and turns too many for me – but I’d happily read more of Fox.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      At 480 pages, that’s a long audiobook – on the page it sped by though! I particularly liked Sveta as a character – it’d be good if he used her again in another episode…

      • Col says:

        I can guess it would have been different to read. I did like Sveta but the character I found most intriguing was Dennisov! I loved the idea of your house also being the local bar!!

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