Sam Eastland investigates Stalinist Russia in several novels featuring Inspector Pekkala, a Finnish soldier chosen by Tsar Nicholas Romanov to become his personal detective. However, with the overthrow of the old regime, Pekkala finds himself dispatched to the Siberian gulag, there to barely survive until Stalin brings him back to duty, eager to discover the truth about what really happened to the Romanav clan, in the first installment in the series, The Eye of the Red Tsar. “The stoic Pekkala is a bit enigmatic but is shown to be intelligent, courageous, and dogged; Eastland will no doubt reveal more about him in future books,” wrote a Booklist critic of this series opener. A reviewer for the London Independent had similar praise for The Eye of the Red Tsar, noting, “The see-saw narrative is a perfect ploy for a thriller, taking in both the dying embers of the Romanov era and the wake-up call that would follow with the purges and the famines, the assassinations and torture chambers.”
The second book in the series, Shadow Pass, was published in 2011, titled The Red Coffin in the UK. Third in the series appeared in 2012 in the U.S. as Archive 17 and in England as Siberian Red. Eastland is the pseudonym of American author Paul Watkins.
Welcome, Sam Eastland, to Scene of the Crime.
Perhaps we could begin with how you came to choose the Soviet Union under Stalin for this series. Reviewers have highly praised your historical accuracy and the depth of research that went into the book.
During the mid 1990’s, a friend of mine was present at a construction site in Russia when a backhoe unearthed the body of a soldier. The dead man was laying spread-eagled on the carcass of a horse which had been buried at the same time. The man was wearing a long greatcoat, tall boots and had a thick leather belt across his middle. The clothing and the body had been preserved by the soil so that the man appeared to be partially mummified. Upon examination of the corpse, it became clear that the rider had been buried around the time of the First World War. It also seemed clear, from the fact that he had been laid to rest along with his horse, that the man had probably been buried on the same spot where he had been killed. The man’s belt buckle, which clearly showed the double-headed eagle of the Romanovs, identified him as a soldier of the Tsar’s Army. However, because of the location, which was not on what would have been the front lines during the Great War, the man must have been buried after, not during, the war. This would have placed the soldier’s death at some time in the early days of the Revolution, when soldiers still loyal to the Tsar, known as the Whites, fought pitched battles with the Bolsheviks, who became known as the Reds.
During the course of the construction, several other bodies were discovered, all of whom were similarly dressed and, presumably, had been killed during the same battle.
After the bodies had been re-interred, my friend was given one of the belt buckles as a souvenir. He then passed it on to me, and I still have it.
For every book, there is always some unexpected catalyst that sets everything in motion. Waiting for these catalysts to take hold is like standing in the path of a gently falling meteor shower. Ideas will come hurtling past, but they don’t hit you, so eventually you forget them. But then some image or some anecdote, will strike you right between the eyes. From that point on, the formation of the book becomes like the making of a pearl inside an oyster. The grain of sand embeds itself inside the oyster. The oyster is not trying to produce a thing of beauty. It is trying to survive. The pearl is the product of pain. It is the same with these stories. Once they have snagged like a fishhook in your brain, you have to find a way to work them loose.
Holding that buckle in my hand made me think of the tens of thousands of people who were swallowed up in that revolution whose stories have never been told. For months after I began writing the Eye of the Red Tsar, that rider galloped through my dreams. It became an act of self-preservation to conjure back to life the story of that buckle, and of the man who wore it to his death.
What makes this a good setting for your books?
The ‘real time’ of the books is Stalinist Russia, but the main character, A Finn named Pekkala, was the former Special Investigator for the last Tsar, Nicholas II. The series has numerous flashbacks to those final years of the Romanov dynasty, and these contrast starkly with the grim and monochrome reality of life during the Great Terror.
Did you consciously set out to use Soviet Russia as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
The element of the series most closely resembling a character for me is not the urban settings of Moscow or Leningrad/St. Petersburg, but rather the wilderness of Siberia, where Pekkala was sent as a gulag prisoner immediately following the Revolution. For this, I drew upon the many months of work I did for National Geographic in polar regions of Norway, Sweden and Finland. I also spend about half of my year up in Northern Maine, where the winters rival anything I ever saw in the arctic. As I have done with research on other books (learning to fly a biplane, working on deep sea fishing boats, living in the Sahara), I put myself through some fairly grueling field work prior to writing about Pekkala’s experience in the wilderness.
Pekkala, being a Finn, is a stranger in the locale of the books. This is true both in the sense of his physical background but to an even greater degree in his outlook on society. In fact, referring to the previous question, the only place he truly feels at home is the wilderness to which he was exiled by his captors, the Bolsheviks. They thought they were sending him to his death, but in fact they were sending him home.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
These are early days for the series [the first novel appeared in April, 2010]. Translation rights have sold to over a dozen countries, but I do not expect to see those in print for a little while. I have received a great deal of correspondence on the website I designed to accompany the series, and it has been very gratifying for me to read the kind things people have had to say about the book.
Russian history, perhaps more than that of any other country, is layered with so many lies, denials, discreditations and rehabilitations that there is no one version of that country’s past. The only reliable stance to take is that nothing about it is reliable. And yet you know that the truth is in there somewhere, woven into the fabric of these deceptions.
Inevitably, in a situation like this, people will take exception to one interpretation or another. For example, I had one reader write to me, quite indignant about the fact that I had named members of the Czech Legion, whose story is as dramatic as anything I’ve ever read about the Revolution, as subjects of Austria and Hungary. They were, she insisted, Czechs and Slovaks, not Austrians and Hungarians. There were many exclamations marks, and I had clearly struck a nerve with this person. The thing is, these Czechs and Slovaks were fighting for their independence from Austria and Hungary, which together formed the once-great Habsburg Empire. Until such time as they achieved that independence, they may well have been ethnic Czechs, but they were also subjects of Austria and Hungary. It’s the equivalent of someone saying, “I’m not British, I’m Scottish!”, when the fact is, that person is both, at least until they get their own Revolution underway.
Here is an extract from the second novel in the series, which will be published next year. It takes place on board a prison transport on its way from Moscow to a gulag in Siberia. I have chosen this instead of a straight description of Moscow in the 1930’s or the Catherine Palace at the turn of the 20th Century, because it shows, for me at least, how location defines character, instead of just defining itself.
“The thing he would always remember was the way people died standing up.
“As convict transport ETAP-61 made its way east towards the Borodok Labor Camp, Pekkala abandoned hope of ever seeing home again. The train was over fifty wagons long. Each one contained 80 men, crammed into a space designed to hold 40.
“It was too crowded for anyone to sit. Prisoners took turns in the middle, where there was body heat to share. The rest stood at the edges. Dressed only in dirty beige pajamas, a few of them froze every night. There was no room for them to fall, so the corpses remained on their feet while their lips turned blue and spider webs of ice glazed their eyes. By morning, they were cloaked in white crystals.
“With his face pressed to a tiny opening criss-crossed with barbed wire, Pekkala looked out at the cities of Sverdlovsk, Petropavlovsk and Omsk. Until he saw their names spelled out on blue and white enamel signs above the station platforms, those places had never seemed real. They had existed as locations destined to remain always beyond the horizon, reachable only in dreams. Like Zanzibar or Timbuktu.
“The train passed through these cities after dark, in order to hide its contents from the people living there. At Novosibirsk, Pekkala spotted two men illuminated by a glow cast through the open doorway of a tavern. He thought he heard them singing. Snow fell around the men like a cascade of diamonds. Beyond, silhouetted against the blue-black sky, rose the onion-shaped domes of orthodox churches. Afterwards, as the train pressed on into darkness so complete it was as if they’d left the earth and were now hurtling through space, the singing of those two men haunted him.
“Hour after hour, the wheels clanked lazily along the tracks, their sound like a monstrous sharpening of knives,
“Only in open country did the engines ever come to a halt. Then the guards jumped down and beat against the outsides of the wagons with their rifle butts, in order to dislodge those who had become frozen to the inner walls. Usually the corpses had to be prised free, leaving behind the imprints of their faces, complete with eyelashes and shreds of beard, in the wagon’s icy plating.
“Beside the tracks lay skeletons from previous convict transports. Rib cages jutted from rags of clothing and silver teeth glinted in their skulls.
“While the wagons doors remained open, Pekkala would stretch out his hand, snap off icicles hanging from the roof, and pass them back among the other prisoners. Some days, this was their only source of water.”
Book 2 of the series is set primarily in Moscow, and involves a plot to overthrow the Soviet government just as war with Germany is becoming inevitable. The book is called The Red Coffin in Britain, but the US publishers, Bantam/Random House, are calling it The Shadow Pass. If you had asked me before this decision was made whether I would mind having a book with two titles, I would probably have said yes. However, I have learned over the years, being a Brit who lives in the States, that British and American readers have very different tastes. This extends to titles as well as to the kind of stories which draw them in. Besides, I know that a number of the translations are also being renamed in order to best fit the tastes of those countries. You can’t hold on too tightly to these stories. As it is with children, if you hold on to them too tightly, even if it is out of love, you end up simply smothering them. (Note: Boot 3 of the series, in which Pekkala is sent in search of the missing gold of Tsar Nicholas II, also had dual UK/US titles, Siberian Red and Archive 17, respectively.)
Thanks again, Sam, for taking the time to share your spirit of place with Scene of the Crime.
For more about the author, visit his homepage.