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by Reggie Nadelson
Walker, June 2009
390 pages
ISBN: 0802717527

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Artie Cohen is trying to detach himself from his job as a NYPD detective to take a low-key vacation when his friend Tolya Sverdloff asks him a favor in a way typical for the larger-than-life Russian businessman with a generous spirit and a shady side: "Artie, good morning, how are you, have something to drink, or maybe a cup of good coffee, and we'll talk, I need a little favor, maybe you can help me out?" Helping Tolya becomes complicated when Artie is flagged down by a small girl who leads him to a desolate fenced-off playground overgrown with weeds where a strange shape wrapped in duct tape is tied to a swing that creaks in the wind. The shape is a dead woman, a young prostitute from Russia who Artie belatedly realizes has a strong resemblance to Tolya's daughter, Valentina.

There are two reasons that Val might have been targeted for murder. She has angered officials in Russia with her outspoken criticism of the government and her support of abused girls who are being exploited in the sex trade. And her father, Tolya, has gotten in over his head with Russian businessmen in London, a city that has become rotten with their money, infected with corruption, a place where wealthy oligarchs waxing sentimental about Imperial Russia dream of revolution and dissidents die horribly from strange radioactive poisons. Artie reluctantly travels to London – "bloody London" in his opinion – and on from there to Moscow, in love with Val, trying to help his hapless friend Tolya, and dodging an ex-FBI agent who is back at work in the clandestine services, hoping Artie will gather information within the Russian diaspora.

As he retraces Val's steps, he finds his memories as a child of a KGB agent and a refusnik mother layered on the present reality, where cab drivers and journalists talk about what they were "before" – before the wall came down. Physicists now sell coats, linguists drive cabs, and scoundrels grow rich. The center of Moscow is humming with wealth and greed, but at Val's shelter for girls, things are different: "there were only the kids and the stained building and old women in headscarves who looked like Russian women had looked for centuries." This palimpsest of old and new Moscow, of wealth and decay, is beautifully suggested when Artie is sitting in a café with a Russian agent who pays for their drinks with a Platinum Amex card. He sees a hallucinatory image, a girl riding a horse on bareback, galloping across Red Square, hair streaming. The agent tells him he isn't imagining it. "It really is a horse. You see that at night in Moscow."

Nadelson's style is unmistakable: elegant, dreamy, infused with Artie's stubborn individuality, and illuminated with vivid settings. At one point in the story Artie asks Val about the battered camera she carries. It's more than an old camera, she insists, it's a Leica, a treasure that allows her to catch "decisive moments," such as snapping a photo of two old men playing cards just as one of them slaps his winning hand down. Londongrad is full of such images, a set of contact sheets of vividly realized decisive moments.

Nadelson is a tremendously talented writer whose books deserves a wider audience. If you haven't yet met Artie Cohen, you have some splendid reading ahead of you.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, November 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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