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by Sam Eastland
Faber & Faber, February 2013
384 pages
12.99 GBP
ISBN: 0571278450

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In August 1941, the Nazis have invaded Russia. A lost German aircraft is shot down behind Russian lines, and found to be carrying a picture of a red moth. The suspicion that the picture has some special significance is enough to get it sent straight to Stalin, who calls in his Finnish investigator, Pekkala. Pekkala correctly deduces that the picture carries within it clues to the location of a treasure formerly housed in a Tsarist palace. There is clearly a traitor in Russia who is trying to assist Hitler's expert in finding the treasure and taking it back to Germany. Stalin is determined to prevent this, and sends Pekkala through enemy lines to foil the attempt. It will take skill and luck to avoid capture; even if he avoids this, if the treasure is lost to Germany, Stalin's anger will mean a death sentence.

Stalin and Pekkala have featured in Eastland's previous books; in THE RED MOTH we spend more time with them and the oddness of the two characters is regrettably less well sustained. Pekkala meets Stalin on several occasions and, no sycophant, engages Stalin in conversation as he would anyone else. This, coupled with Stalin's preparedness to take the advice of experts and ability to reason logically, has the effect of reducing Stalin to normal proportions. Pekkala's background is explored in more detail than hitherto, and again familiarity makes him less extraordinary. Consequently, two important actors in the drama are not as compelling as they have been in previous 'red' books.

Notwithstanding the above, THE RED MOTH exhibits Eastland's usual grasp of background detail which goes a long way to give solidity to a time now long past. His knowledge of the weaponry, uniforms, vehicles, procedures, etc, is doubtless the result of years of study yet is woven into the story without seeming over-didactic. And the period chosen for this adventure is certainly dramatic - one of the pivotal historical points of the last century or so - with the balance of power in the east under dispute, and death and destruction a daily occurrence.

Fundamentally, the plot hinges upon a struggle for an art treasure - Stalin to hold on to it and Hitler to appropriate it. No doubt possession would score propaganda points and bragging rights, but when all is said and done it is difficult to imagine either of the principals thinking it worth while spending more than ten seconds on the matter. Both had bigger fish to fry, and it tries credulity to think that Stalin would have a sustained interest in art, however valuable, when Russia was being overrun by hordes of rapacious Germans. However, this aside, Pekkala's latest adventure is likely to have widespread appeal, especially to those who enjoyed his previous outings.

Chris Roberts is a retired manager of shopping centres in Hong Kong, and now lives in Bristol, primarily reading.

Reviewed by Chris Roberts, November 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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