Tuesday, March 07, 2017

1917 Crime Novel from David Downing, LENIN'S ROLLER COASTER

David Downing's World War II series set in Berlin, Germany, starting with Zoo Station, turned the cruelties and disasters of wartime Germany into a panoramic backdrop for a series of espionage adventures and some serious grown-up romance. After those six books, Downing moved to World War I and a set of very different espionage novels, featuring brash British spy Jack McColl and his star-crossed lover, an Irish-American journalist, Caitlin Hanley.

The couple's extreme risks in Jack of Spies and One Man's Flag pitted them politically against each other: Jack working for the British government, and Caitlin taking the side of the Irish rebels, in spite of an effort at journalistic balance. In the process, Caitlin's brother died, with Jack mortally involved -- and although finally sharing details brings some relief from guilt and blame, there's still doubt about how well Caitlin and Jack can handle being a couple, considering their jobs and loyalties.

So we open in 1917 in LENIN'S ROLLER COASTER, with a pair of workers' revolutions in Russia while the rest of Europe is tugging the "Reds" into the Great War. Caitlin wants to reconnect with her Bolshevik friends, to build stories of the massive changes in human history taking place; Jack's assigned to blowing up bridges and anything else that will keep the Germans from getting the arms and other supplies they need to win the war against England and France.

Downing's Berlin (World War II) series unfolded a very different side of that war, the "home front" in what was once one of Europe's most elegant and civilized cities -- but this new World War I series, partly because it's further back in time but also because American readers, at least, know fewer details, challenges Downing to create fully fleshed settings and motives. Motive, on the other hand, is emphatically not a problem for the people pushing Jack and Caitlin around: They know what they want, and they'll kill readily to move their causes forward. Even Caitlin's closest, kindest friends turn out to have a talent for violence, without regrets.

The weight of so much detail to introduce moves LENIN'S ROLLER COASTER off the pace of traditional espionage or crime fiction, though. Pages upon pages pile up with background and explanations. Interior comments from the characters aren't sufficient to whip the pace. A sample of the text: "If the Bolshevik experiment ended in failure, Caitlin thought the failure should be their own. If Lenin and the party went down to defeat, it should be at the hands of the Russian people, not a cabal of foreign interests in league with past oppressors."

When the two adventurers finally cross paths in Moscow, the friction between them adds striking danger to each one's pursuits. But it takes three-fourths of the book to reach that part -- a long journey made lively at the halfway point by Jack's unexpected fostering of an orphan, but otherwise challenging for readers who seek a rapid pace and costly decisions made under fire. Oddly, the book seems to have taken on some of the Russian literary maneuvers and density.

This means that if you like Russian espionage, an unusual face of World War I (the Great War, the war to end all wars), and insight into the factions that clashed after the Russian Revolution, this book's meant for you. Think Boris Akunin, for instance -- plan to spend time with this one.

I'm a committed Downing fan, for the meticulous historic details and cultural insight, as well as the face of fiction. And I was glad to take my time in reading LENIN'S ROLLER COASTER. But I have relatively few readers I'll recommend this one to -- because it's so far off the genre's usual conventions. Downing is an amazing author; I'm hoping there are enough "unconventional" readers out there to keep this series going, and to satisfy the hunger to see Jack and Caitlin somehow reconnect once the shooting is over. All from Soho Crime, of course.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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