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)