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DEATH IN ST. PETERSBURG
by Tasha Alexander
Minotaur, October 2017
304 pages
$25.99
ISBN: 1250058287


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Tasha Alexander novels are a romp in the past. If Alexander brings her typical cast of characters to any Victorian or Edwardian-era city, readers will be treated to fun conversations plus a voyeuristic view behind glittering facades. This time, the façade is located in Tsarist-era Russia, in the breath just before World War and Revolution. St. Petersburg has not yet been reviled as the bastion of privilege. Still intact are the glittering scenes, gilded villas, dachas, box seats and coaches, and the ballet, a showplace for beautiful women and a marketplace for men with the appetite to own that beauty.

Dramatis personae: Lady Emily Hargreaves, a British private investigator who is visiting St. Petersburg in order to take in the ballet and the balls of the season; Colin Hargreaves, Emily's husband and international security officer who extends unusual freedom to his wife; Cecile du Lac, French friend of Lady Emily, full of boundless opinions; her Russian friend, Masha, a princess; their acquaintance, Prince Vasilii Ruslanovich Guryanov, who privately has been conducting an affair with a ballerina, and who publicly is in charge of court security; Sebastian Capet, who steals the things from people he feels they do not deserve and gives those things to those who deserve them; Ekaterina Petrovna Sokolova (Katenka), aspiring ballerina whom we follow through her schooling until she premiers at the Imperial Ballet; her brother Lev, a quiet brooding man who loves Katenka's best friend, and who is a member of the League of Struggle, a revolutionary group; Irina Semenova, Nemetseva (Irusya), a brilliant young star ballerina, Katenka's friend, but not for long; Dimitri Dimitriyevich (Mitya), who gives Katenka her first kiss, and who is a member of the League as well; a mysterious ghost ballerina, who appears posed en pointe wearing a red sash; the corps de ballet, costumers, choreographers; princes, princesses, the Tsar Nicholas and the Tsarina Alexandra; servitors, guards, ladies and gentlemen of Russian society.

The death in St. Petersburg that appears in the title of Tasha Alexander's latest occurs very early in the tale: leaving a performance of Swan Lake, Lady Emily stumbles upon a gory scene—a ballerina decked out in the beautiful white of a swan has been knifed to death and lies in the snow. In the pages that follow, a minor prince, Vasilii Ruslanovich Guryanov engages Lady Emily in a tête-a-tête at a party. He loved the dead ballerina, but his social position … you see … it would not do to be noticed … And in this wise, Lady Emily finds herself investigating the ballerina's last days and reporting to the prince.

Interspersed with chapters that outline Lady Emily's and her friend's doings, we flash back in time and enter the minds of two young ballet students: Irusya, a girl of privilege who is ambitious, glittering, ruthless, and exquisite; and the girl she befriends, Katenka, of a lower social class, silent, hardworking, determined. In the ballerinas' chapters, we follow the friends through practice, the withering comments of ballet masters, and, finally, tryouts and their premiers.

Lady Emily interviews costumers and a retired ballerina. She visits the Hermitage and views a promenade of the Tsar and Tsarina; she goes to balls, eavesdrops on conversations. From time to time, she reports to the prince. Our novel unfolds as a series of glittering scenes, each interrupted by a startling surprise. There are red herrings aplenty until Lady Emily, in a bold move, saves the day.

§ Cathy Downs is Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. She teaches American Literature and is a fan of the well-turned whodunit.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, October 2017

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