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October 2016

A police procedural set in contemporary Helsinki, where we spent a week in 2016.  

aymphonies.jpg

The violin proves to be a dangerous instrument when three young women carrying violins are murdered one after another, the first found at the Sibelius monument.  Been there.  

Sibelius monument.jpg

The police investigation seems to involve only three officers, and they issue no public warning about those nasty violins.  

There are many red herrings, some very satisfying. 

There is also quite a lot about music, particularly Jean Sibelius's music. While it is rather technical, it is informative.

The author tries hard to relate the music to the plot but it does not work for me.

While much of the policing is interesting and engaging, I did find the principal officer, Miranda, very immature. Her hormones are more decisive than her grey matter.

However the profile of the culprit, that part was intellectually interesting.

The victims and their murderers are described in more detail than suits me.

The denouement left me cold. The villain was obvious for a long time to the reader, if not to Miranda. The complication of the religious zealot made little sense to this reader.

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The author has other musical titles.

Reading William Kristol’s string of repetitive laments on the arrested development that is Trump Donald is amusing. The most recent one I have seen is ‘It’s Not too Late - Trump must go.’ While one may agree with the sentiment, the source is tainted.

W Krstol.jpg Kristol William

Nowhere in this weekly flow is there a mea culpa. Why should there be?

For those who missed the first act, Irving Kristol, William’s father, was a prime and proud architect of the Neo-Conservative movement. Its motto was ‘No more Mr Nice Guy’ and its practice was ‘Anything Goes,’ just ask Karl Rove.

Karl Rove.jpg Rove Karl

Lie, cheat, steal, these are all acceptable activities in pursuit of the greater good, namely a Republican America from fifty statehouses to the White House. If Kristol senior was Dr Frankenstein, then Kristol William was Igor, eagerly and enthusiastically applying jolts of electricity to the living dead.

As the Neo-Cons zombies rose, bipartisanship and civility fell. The Tea Party grew from this seed and that in turned spawned the Alt Right

Alt Right.jpg

It is recurrent theme in politics in the United States, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, populist at the expense of institutions.

The inevitable, perhaps logical, outcome of this destructive approach to politics is candidate Trump Donald for whom there are no limits. He is the Alt Right candidate in Republican clothing.

These day not a week passes but Kristol William calls upon fellow conservatives, notice he no longer bellows his Neo-Con credentials, to do something about Trump Donald! Get the toothpaste back in the tube!

What fun it is watching this incubus squirm in his own juice!

Thanks to the Kristols and their kind. like Bill O’Nonsense, Murdoch’s Organs, and Fox Fairy Tales, we have come to this pass.

The party of Abraham Lincoln, the party of Herbert Hoover, the party of Wendell Wilkie, the party of Thomas Dewey, the party of Dwight Eisenhower, the party of Bob Dole, the party of John McCain,…..has come to Trump Donald.

I mention these men above because they were standard bearers of the Republican Party as presidential candidates.

A more complete list of noteworthy Republicans would also include George Norris, Arthur Vandenberg, John Lindsay, Earl Warren, Everett Dirksen, Margaret Chase Smith, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jacob Javits, Harold Stassen, Charles Percy, Olympia Snowe, Nelson Rockefeller, Arlen Spector, Nancy Johnson, and Christine Whitman. The list could be extended to many others.

Thanks to the Neo-Cons’ efforts to drive everyone else out of the party in the search for ideological purity, the Republicans are cut from the clothe that gave us Dennis Hastert. I could not find any pictures of this one in prison orange.

The ideology is simple: Anything goes.

The GOP is dead, but it still twitches with galvanic discharge.

The genre is thriller but not the breathless, cross-cut, cryptic kind that conceals its lack of substance with smoke and mirrors.  

Kolchak Gold.jpg

In this case a historian comes across some undiscovered archival material.  From this premises a mystery and a quest unfold.  It is a reasonable premise since in its many convulsion Russian records have often been boxed up and sent off to time countryside and forgotten, because those who sent them died without time to leave records of the distribution.  In the Kremlin treasury we were told many Tsarist gold bars were found buried in barn a few years ago in unopened boxes, stashed at least since the Civil War, each bearing the double eagle.

The exposition of the revolution, the communist coup d'état, and the Civil War was of especial interest to me as I read it while in Moscow, traversing museums and galleries rich in the detail of that period, having just done the same in St Petersburg.  The factions, divisions, and differences among the White Russians goes a long way to explaining why they lost the Civil War. While they outnumbered and outgunned the Bolsheviks, they could never agree among themselves nor could they compromise with each other. As a result the Bolsheviks picked them off one-by-one.

The abdication of Nicholas II, accession of his younger brother Michael for one day and his replacement by Prince Lvov, then the liberal Alexander Kerensky, the ill fated Duma election that favoured the liberals and not the communists, the effort to continue the war which failed, and the coup at 2:10 a.m. in the White Dining room, which we visited where the clock stopped at that time.  

IMG_3152.jpg My snap of the White Dining Room.

IMG_3151.jpg The clock stopped at the time the door burst open.

The Romanov dynasty came full circle starting and ending with a Tsar Michael.

But the story is crowded and chops back-and-forth in time and place from those who stashed the gold, the Nazi effort to retrieve it, and our hero's effort to track it down plus far too much of his back story, boring as usual.  

Garfield.jpg Brian Garfield

We do get rather too much of our hero's many other publications, offered no doubt to credential him.  While his description of the Israeli femme fatale is nicely done, it does go on and on. It was clear to this reader from the beginning that she was a honey trap but the protagonist was much slower to realise that it was not his lengthy cv or charms alone that kept her coming back for more. Oh hum. There is one born every minute, per the sage.

Another intricate krimi from this master, Ross Macdonald, he of California sunshine noir.

This is Macdonald's take on the generation gap of the 1960s. Young Davy and even younger Sandy seem bound for mutually assured self-destruction while taking a few others with them.

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Sebastian, Sandy's father calls in Lew Archer to find them and return Sandy home. While Sebastian offers a good front, it does not take Archer long to realise there is no back to this front. Sebastian failed to make the transition from a promising young businessman to a successful one. Behind the trophy wife, model home, and new car Archer finds a loveless marriage, a silent house, and many unpaid bills, while Sebastian dances attendance on his wealthy boss, Stephen Hackett, in the hope of....something.

Then Hackett is kidnapped at gunpoint by none other than the two teenagers, Davy and Sandy. Unbelievable but true. Why?

It is a tangled skein and by the end I needed a genealogical chart because this one spans three generations. It is a cocktail of Macdonald's themes, an unloved child, a misused child, illicit drugs, denied kinship, a surly subordinate, a very nice woman who knows too much, a venal older woman with a toy boy husband, and assorted police officers including a bent one.

The body count reaches Midsomer proportions while Archer develops. applies, tests, and rejects alternative hypotheses until at last one fits.

While the principle cast seems to consist of disparate people with nothing in common, in fact, on that family tree, they are entwined by marriage and murder, the latter seeming to be the stronger bond.

In addition to the rebels with a cause in the teenagers, Macdonald also adds some Cain and Abel. And as frequently the case in his novels, there is a black widow who has consumed two husbands.

Against the array of vipers and the lost teenagers, Archer meets some very solid citizens. Alma in the nursing home, a school guidance counsellor who goes beyond the call of duty, a security guard who keeps his word come what may, many others who lend a land, like truck driver who finds Archer on the highway, Al at the sandwich bar, and gas pump jockey with a caliber on his leg, each of whom reminds the reader of all the decent people out there.

The imagery at times transcends the story as when Archer admits to himself that he likes the work, late at night, driving from one place to another like an antigen connecting cells in the great body of Southern California.

This title reads like short stories woven together, one of which concerns the Trans-Siberian Express. Only half-way through the book does our protagonist get on the train.  The details of the train and Siberia read like excerpts from Wikipedia.  

Trans-Siberian.jpg

Though it is presented as a police procedural with the three teams of detectives working separate cases, pace Ed McBain's 87th precinct, the ominous villain on the train and the plot that leads to the train is more of the thriller.   Credulity replaces credibility.

The three stories are told back to front in alternative chunks of prose, which this reader finds confusing and distracting.  

Though Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov is the central, continuing character in this series, endowed with an artificial leg to give him some distinction, I found him to be hallow.  Tap, tap there is nothing inside.  He is very polite, very patient, very clever....  he has a family....  our hero is motivated by justice but the boss is ambitious for political power and is more interested in accumulating files on those he can manipulate than banging up crims. So far, so carbon copy.

The three cases.
1. The subway stabber who is a nutter of no interest. This one is a procedural.  Much plod and a trap that almost backfires.  
2. The mysterious object on the train which turns out to be very little as far as I could tell. The thriller.
3. The kidnapping of the heavy metal musician whose kidnapping was arranged by his father to teach the prick a lesson. I identified with the father on this one.

IMG_3564.jpg The Trans-Siberian railroad in October 2016 when we crossed it.

This is one of dozens of titles by this author, and to this reader it has the same narrative structure of the one other one of his I tried to read.  All done by the numbers.  Yet the cover proclaims it to be a best seller and it was published by a reputable firm. Go figure.

Kaminsky.jpg Stuart Kaminsky

There are some soppy comments on the blanket of white snow in Moscow. Anyone who have lived in a big city will realise snow is usually grey like the sky until it turns brown from the pollution and churned up by cars and pedistrians into brown sludge.   There is nothing nice about it after thirty-six hours.

This epistolary novel is a meditation on grief and mourning. It is low key, told in fragments and the more powerful for this episodic manner of exposition. At age twenty-five a man commited suicide and his father is thereafter haunted by this death.

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Most of the story is told backwards as the father remembers his immediate efforts to understand the suicide by reading and re-reading every word his son left in letters, in noteboooks, in grad school assignments, anything else he can find.

This quest is sometimes played out before a chorus of one, Owl, his Cree, coffee-drinking friend.

It is set in Edmonton Alberta and the characters are Mennonites, very serious and spiritual people, from the vast prairies.

Wiebe.jpg Rudy Wiebe

I used to see Wiebe on campus in grad school, and read one of his earlier novels at that time, 'Peace shall destroy many.' It was memorable. Much of this novel seems near the bone, almost autobiographical.

The Russia into which Peter (1672-1725)  was born was a closed and homogeneous world dominated by an insatiable church.  Men wore belted caftans. Women were never seen out of the house and seldom in it.  An alcoholic stupor was the goal of many at both the top and bottom of the social order. The Orthodox Church awaited the Advent, demand at least six hours of prayer a day for salvation, and hated all foreigners as agents of satan.  This new Rome was surrounded by religious enemies, Lutherans to the north in Sweden, Catholics in the west in Poland, Islam to the south in Turkey, and worst of all the rival Greek orthodox. 

The Russian Orthodox Church was in a state of siege. There were very few foreigners in Russia, merchants and traders in Archangel and some craftsmen in Moscow. End of story.

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While most of these surrounding foreigners had no interest whatever in Russia, the religious leadership in Russia saw devils under every bed. Russian xenophobia has deep roots. 

While Muscovy included vast areas, most of it went its own way.  This Russia had no coast on either the Black Sea or the Baltic Sea.  The Tatars, clients of the Ottoman, held all of the north coast of the Black Sea; the Baltic was held by Sweden on all three coasts.  Most of the Ukraine had been conquered by Poland, including Kiev, a sacred city where the Russian Orthodox religion had began. 

When the Ottomans besieged Vienna, Catholic Poland offered to return Kiev to Muscovy, if Russia would attack the Tatars to divert the Ottomans.  This was the first opening to the Europe.

Russia had no army but a palace guard and vast pool of manpower, which was pressed into service as a motley and undisciplined and under-armed expeditionary force.  This huge mob of 100,000 men was no match for either the geography or the Tatars.  After several disasters, the Russians declared victory and a remnant of the force returned to Moscow, but the Poles wanted more than the assertion of victory and, finally, a second even larger and more ramshackle force went, reluctantly, with a similar result.  Kiev remained Polish.

These debacles were crucial in Russia, but more importantly, they represent the first time a Russian regime cooperated with Europeans, and it was the first conflict with the Turks.  The contact with Europe was sour and remains so today and the animosity with the Turks continues today. 

The Romanovs had ruled Muscovy for two hundred years when Peter was born.  His father Alexander was a sensible man who resisted some of the more lunatic demands of the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church.  He had three sons, Fedor, Ivan, and Peter with two sucessive wives.  Fedor and Ivan were born of the first wife and Fedor was raised to be Tsar.  Peter’s mother was a second wife, and as third in line Peter was an afterthought.  Then Alexander died unexpectedly and a dynastic struggle ensured between the families of the two wives about status and place at court.  (The first wive had died but here many relatives were still in court.) At one point the struggle became a massacre.  Most members of the family of Peter’s mother were murdered, some before his eyes when he was nine years old, though his mother survived.  This massacre might explain some of Peter’s aversion to Moscow ever after. 

The details are many and fascinating: Fedor died as did Ivan without heirs, and Peter was Tsar.

From about six years of age Peter lived in a village outside of Moscow where he played soldiers with a company of boys.  He continued to this on an ever increasing scale.  There he developed an aptitude for physical labor and showed a willingness to learn from others, from carpenters and soldiers who trained his boy-army.  Near the river there he came across the keel of a sea-going vessel in a warehouse, perhaps stored there for the timbers to be reused for another purpose.  This discovery kindled his lifelong obsession with the sea.  Peter found chandlers and carpenters to rebuild the ship.  These men were Dutch and this was his first contact with Europeans and he liked them for what he could learn from them and what they told him about the world beyond.

Peter’s tenure as Tsar is dated from age ten when he was ordained Tsar, though Ivan and his sister, Sophia, ruled, while he played in the country.  When Ivan died and Sophia was displaced by a resurgence of Peter’s mother’s family, when he was seventeen, he continued to live in the countryside.  There was no instant conversion like Prince Hal in Shakespeare. 

Peter Great.jpg

One of the arresting figures among the vast cast of this epic is Sophia, who ruled as Regent for six years. The first woman to do in Russia. Since Ivan was ill, crippled, and perhaps mentally deficient, she was Tsar in all but name during his tenure. In the Arsenal in the Kremlin in Moscow we saw a throne where the two boys - Ivan and Peter - sat as co-Tsars in front of a screen with a window. Sophia sat behind the screen listening and told Ivan and Peter what to do and say.

In a world where women were never seen and often beaten to death, she was exceptional indeed.

As a boy Peter’s father gave him wooden toy wagons and boats and he took them apart and reassembled them.  When he could not get them back together he went to the palace carpenters for help. He was free to do so because he was the third son. The heir-apparent, Fedor, would not have been permitted to defer to carpenters.  This willingness to ask and accept help stayed with him, as did his fascination with how things work.  In the boy we see the man.

While his half-brothers Fedor and Ivan were sickly, Peter was a picture of rude good health and a big picture at that.  He was always big for his age. He grew to be six feet and eight inches tall, though he was relatively thin.  That make his more than a head taller than all of his contemporaries. His size may have been a genetic defect.

In his childhood and adolescence he was modest.  With his boy army of three hundred in the village he let others be officers while he served in the ranks.  Thus in drawings and descriptions of these games he wears a soldier’s uniform in the ranks, while others were in the braid of officers based on their abilities.  There is no doubt Peter ran the show, planning during the night the activities for the next day, but in the execution he deferred to others.  Again this is a freedom Fedor would never have had. The Tsar could not defer to others. Here in seed is Peter's lifelong belief that merit not blood should decide rank.

Though Fedor, Ivan, and Peter seldom mixed when they did they always seems to get along with each other.  But Peter came to hate Sophia for the murder of his maternal family.

When Fedor died, the diminished Ivan became Tsar.  What a contrast between the great strapping boy Peter and the lame, halt, and partly blind Ivan.

Much follows this foundation in the nearly one thousand pages of this tome.  As much as a third of it concerns the twenty year Great Northern War with Sweden, then an imperial power occupying the entire Baltic Coast, Finland, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuanian, and some of what became Prussia and Poland. It was a great power to rival France.  

Peter's ambition for the sea focused on the Baltic and Black Seas. The latter brought conflict with the Ottoman Empire and many subsequent wars, while the former meant conflict with Sweden.

It is uncanny how the Swedish invasion of Russia prefigured that of Napoleon and later Hitler. Peter retreated deeper and deeper into the vast Russian steppes, the Swedish supply line lengthened, and the Russians applied the scorched earth practice to deny supplies and succour to the Swedes, a 150 mile zone of exclusion in which everything was removed or destroyed ahead of the advancing Swedes.

When the Swedish supply line finally broke, the Swedes had no choice but to drive on and the decisive battle occurred at Poltava, much venerated in the palace art we saw in St Petersburg.  Even with the Swedes diminished, exhausted, malnourished, and frozen, it was still a near-run fight, but the Russian victory was complete.

The reckless Swedish king, Charles XII, went south into exile with the Russian's other enemy, the Ottomans.  Charles was a character equal to Peter, but in these pages he is one-dimensional, a warrior king, always away at war.  Yet in his absence Sweden rolled on and honoured his endless demands for more money and men.  This stability back home in Stockholm is curious and I may look for a biography of this giant.

Peter's efforts to convert Russia, starting with St Petersburg, into a European city from the top down never quite worked.  As long as he decreed it, it was done, but when he turned away, then ancient Muscovy reappeared.  At best what he got was outward compliance. In St Petersburg there was a tiny European oriented elite around Peter, but elsewhere Muscovy remained, tamed, perhaps, but not converted.

Some of Russian history is a pendulum swing from Europe to Muscovy.  One tsar would push one way and the next would in reaction push the other way.  The swinging continues.

Peter's hobby was carpentry at which he worked all of his life. One well-travelled French diplomat commented Peter was only monarch in Europe with callouses on his hands.  

He married a commoner and after the death of his son, Peter gradually prepared her to be his successor. The son died at Peter's order; Peter thought the boy was conspiring with Austrians to depose himself and turn back the clock to Muscovy.  This episode brought out a paranoia in Peter that remained. He had many other supposed conspirators murdered.

There is much to like about this giant, but he is also foreign from us. The enlightenment had not made it to Russia and he had none of the sympathy and compassion it entailed, still less the emancipatory rhetoric of the King James Bible. He never gave a thought to the slaves, the serfs. In his time about five percent of the population owned the other ninety-five percent.  St Petersburg was built in good part on their dead bodies. Slave labour is another recurrent feature of Russian history.

He relied almost exclusively on decrees to convert St Petersburg and with it Russia to a large version of Amsterdam. He invested nothing in education, communication, or persuasion for either elite or mass. When he wanted to promote industry he enslaved serfs to factory work in an odd and unsuccessful combination of European and Russian practices. Again this seems another continuity in Russian history. Adoption of a European practice with a Russian twist.

While he built the magnificent palace Peterhof to outshine Versailles, and he may have succeeded, he himself did not live it, but rather in an out building on the shore where he occupied two rooms with low ceilings and no decoration of any kind.

Peterhof.jpg

There is nothing of Muscovy in Peterhof. He had none of the appetite for riches that later Russian Tsars and Tsarinas had in excess.

Peter wore plain clothes, not jewels or accoutrements, except on state occasions, which he tried to shun. When the pressure of work got him down, he went to the workshop to do carpentry.

He had a mild form of epilepsy and when he had attacks the only person he responded to was his second wife. Courtiers soon learned to send for her when the Tsar was getting in a bad mood which might precipitate an attack.

When he died his wife succeeded him, and thereafter Russia was ruled by other women for many years, until a later Tsar eradicated that possibility. Here they are:

Sophia as regent, 1682-1686
Catherine I, Peter’s widow, as Empress, 1725-1727
Anna, 1730-1749
Elizabeth, 1749-1762
Catherine II (the Great), 1762-1796, who was neither a Romanov nor a Russia!

Massie author.jpg Robert Massie

The book is lucid, exact, intriguing, discerning, and well judged. The prose is elegant.  Altogether it is a pleasure to read and it is a story that takes reading, there is a lot of detail.  He has another on Catherine the Great, but I have had my fill of Russia and Russians for now.

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