G. D. Abson- Black Wolf

A young woman is found dead on the outskirts of St Petersburg on a freezing January morning. There are no signs of injury, and heavy snowfall has buried all trace of an attacker. Captain Natalya Ivanova’s investigation quickly links the victim to the Decembrists, an anti-Putin dissident group whose acts of civil disobedience have caught the eye of the authorities. And Natalya soon realises she is not the only one interested in the case, as government security services wade in and shut down her investigation almost before it has begun. Before long, state media are spreading smear stories about the dead woman, and Natalya suspects the authorities have something to hide. When a second rebel activist goes missing, she is forced to go undercover to expose the truth. But the stakes are higher than ever before. Not only could her pursuit of the murderer destroy her career, but her family ties to one of the victims threaten to tear her personal life apart…

Closing my review for the first book in the series, Motherland with my enjoyment of discovering what could potentially be a great series with a credible female protagonist, I did have a heightened sense of anticipation for Black Wolf, and sure enough I was not to be disappointed…

What I have particularly enjoyed about this series so far is the real sense of how little Russia has moved forward in terms of the overarching eye of the state on the lives of its inhabitants, and the steely grasp of power encapsulated by seemingly untouchable Putin. As the story focusses on a group of anti-government activists (christened The Decembrists based on the anarchist art collective Voina) and the upcoming elections, there is plenty of room for Abson to develop the theme of societal and political control of the few over the lives of the many. Equally, this theme of control and surveillance dogs our intrepid investigator, Natalya Ivanova throughout, exerting its pressure on both her personal and professional life. The book also puts into sharp focus the financial dirty dealings of those in power, revealing a deep-seated melee of corruption and greed in the upper tiers of society. Little wonder that this investigation is to prove extremely troublesome from start to finish…

I really like the character of Ivanova who is a completely ‘everywoman’ kind of character, with the contrasting dilemmas of her personal life and home and navigating the patriarchal strictures of her work. At times she seems scatty and disorganised, but with a steel fist in a silk glove, she consistently proves her doggedness and determination to flout the rules of her expected professional behaviour, which aids the relatives of the victims, but puts her under the microscope of her superior, and the allied security services who seek to undermine her. There is still a whiff of corruption hanging over her partner Misha and this is what they seek to expose, putting Ivanova in a very fragile position indeed. As she delves deeper in the activities of anti-government group, this puts her into increasing danger, but her empathy and seeking of justice for both victims and their loved ones has a nobility and sympathy that only strengthens our general respect for her. She puts me very much in mind of the crusading female detective protagonists so prevalent in Scandinavian crime fiction, and I love the conflicting loyalties, but also the ardent sense of justice that Abson imbues her character with.

Quite simply, if Abson continues this series with this depth of characterisation, sense of time and place, and such a pace and energy to his plot development and narrative, I for one will be exceedingly happy. It has been very pleasurable to discover a female protagonist in a very male dominated sub genre of crime with Russia as a backdrop, and producing such a vivid and incisive exploration of life within this society.  I will await the next book with an increasing sense of impatience… Recommended.

(With thanks to Mirror Books for the ARC)

Blog Tour- G. D. Abson- Motherland

Student Zena Dahl, the daughter of a Swedish millionaire, has gone missing in St Petersburg (or Piter as the city is colloquially known) after a night out with a friend. Captain Natalya Ivanova is assigned the case, making a change for Natalya from her usual fare of domestic violence work, but, because of the family’s wealth, there’s pressure for a quick result. But as she investigates she discovers that the case is not as straightforward as it may seem…

Pining for the heady excitement of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 trilogy? Wishing that Martin Cruz Smith would recapture the magic of Gorky Park over and over again? Well fret no more gentle reader, as we may be onto a bit of a winner with Motherland, the first instalment of a new series featuring Captain Natalya Ivanova of the St Petersburg Criminal Investigations Directorate…

From the air of breathless danger that Abson introduces in the prologue, through to an extremely tense conclusion, real heart in the mouth stuff, I found this thriller utterly compelling throughout. I thought that Abson’s control of pace and tension was superb, and the balance between the domestic affairs and professional life of Ivanova, was spot on, with neither overpowering the other. They worked together to give the reader an extremely rounded depiction of all aspects of Ivanova’s life,  be it the professional tension of being married to a fellow crime investigator, the nefarious interference in their investigation by other Russian security services, and the sheer intensity and intrigue of the case itself involving a major figure in Swedish industry, and the suspected kidnap and murder of his adopted daughter. I also enjoyed the intermittent references to Putin, his rise to power, his strengthening grip on all aspects of Russian life, and how his shadow looms over the structures of law enforcement and criminal investigation, which reminded me strongly of David Young’s excellent depiction of Stasi interference in East Germany in his series featuring Major Karin Muller. All of these strands weaved in and out sustaining the reader’s interest and engagement, and I found it very difficult to second guess where the story was going, and who was the most duplicitous of the characters involved. There were some nifty little tricks and turns in the plot, and most satisfyingly I didn’t identify the utter rotter at the close of the book, but thought this revelation was unexpected, but totally believable in the context of the plot itself.

Another aspect of the book that I particularly enjoyed were the little instances of gentle, and not so gentle, joshing that occur between Ivanova  and her colleagues, and the wonderfully eccentric babushka who inhabits the apartment next to that of the murdered girl, who finds herself inextricably linked to the case as the finale approaches. I enjoyed the building of tension and suspicion in Ivanova’s marriage, from her belief that her husband Misha has acquired dirty money, her growing reliance on alcohol and cigarettes, and her wonderfully lax approach to housework and cooking. She has a natural feistiness to her character that is endearing, and by the same token Abson does not make her some kind of indestructible kick-ass heroine, with the violence she experiences producing realistic results. I appreciated the balance that Abson brought to her character, and that her character is nicely defined by not being completely Russian, and that her upbringing in Germany, where her sister resides, could be expanded on in future books.

Overall, I thought Motherland was a strong, positive start to a series, introducing a notable female protagonist, and a nice little cohort of personal and professional relationships, that will give stability, and opportunities for character development in further books. Abson can dip his toes in an oligarch’s fountain, and avoid a trip to the gulag as Motherland was an extremely enjoyable thriller. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Mirror Books for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

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