It is 1939. The world stands on the brink of Armageddon. In the Soviet Union, years of revolution, fear and persecution have left the country unprepared to face the onslaught of Nazi Germany. For the coming battles, Stalin has placed his hopes on a 30-ton steel monster, known to its inventors as the T-34 tank, and, the ‘Red Coffin’ to those men who will soon be using it.

The Red Coffin

The Red Coffin

But the design is not yet complete. And when Colonel Nagorski, the weapon’s secretive and eccentric architect, is found murdered, Stalin sends for Pekkala, his most trusted investigator. Stalin is convinced that a sinister group calling itself the White Guild, made up of former soldiers of the Tsar, intend to bring about a German invasion before the Red Coffin is ready. While Soviet engineers struggle to complete the design of the tank, Pekkala must track down the White Guild and expose their plans to propel Germany and Russia into conflict.

The Red Coffin by Sam Eastland – the second in the Inspector Pekkala series – is another title shortlisted for the 2011 CWA Ellis Peters Historical award this month and a book that completely took me by surprise. I have to say when I read the book cover I wasn’t immediately blown away. Russia in 1939, the height of Stalinism, held little interest to me if I’m truthful but after finishing Island of Bones by Imogen Robertson – another title shortlisted for the awards – I wanted to tackle something completely different.

Although the idea of Russia in the late 30’s didn’t exactly excite me, the front cover did. Evoking images in my mind of Steve McQueen and his solitary thrilling ride in The Great Escape I opened the book, settled down and began reading – I didn’t stop. I couldn’t put the book down. Eastland held me captive throughout and with each turn of the page the brutality of Stalin’s rein, when a knock on the door in the early hours of the morning promised a death sentence in Siberia, came to the fore.

The narrative is wonderfully taught and flows unhindered from start to finish allowing you, the reader, to find a rhythm incredibly early on in the tale. I had expected from my earlier reticence to pick up the book, read a few pages, put it down and pick it up further down the line and try again. Nothing could be further from the truth for the combination of Eastland’s writing style and believable characters wouldn’t allow that to happen, for me at least, and the deeper I read the more I wanted to discover about the communist dictator and how his rule affected his subjects.

It was a long walk, almost an hour through the winding streets. He could have made the journey in ten minutes by taking the subway, but Pekkala preferred to remain above ground in spite of the fact that there were no reliable maps of the city. The only charts available for Moscow showed either what the city had looked like before the Revolution or what the city was supposed to look like when all of the new construction projects had been finished. Most of these had not even begun, and there were whole city block which, on these maps, bore no resemblance to what actually stood on the ground. Many streets had been renamed, as had entire cities around the country. Petrograd was Leningrad, Tsaritsin was Stalingrad. As the locals said in Moscow – everything is different but nothing has really changed.

The Red Coffin is so much more than a story about a nation’s desire to build the perfect military weapon – The T-34 tank – it relies heavily on three distinctive relationships. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, the story of murder and the design of the T-34 was secondary to Inspector Pekkala’s relationships with his assistant Commissar Kirov, Josef Stalin and Tsar Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov. That said and given that the T-34 played a big part in the Second World War I would have liked Eastland to spend a little more time on the tank and its development.

The most enjoyable part of the book for me was Pekkala’s friendship with Kirov. Had it not been for the fact that both men lived in the early part of the 20th century and were the creations of Sam Eastland’s imaginative mind I would have happily spent time drinking Vodka with the pair. I thought their dialogue was incredibly humorous especially when talking about food – Pekkala guilty according to Kirov of not appreciating what he was eating – or Kirov’s constant absentmindedness in forgetting to carry his gun while investigating. It had me in stitches at certain points with both men trying to get the upper hand.

The numerous flashbacks work well, especially those with the Tsar and the Romanovs, and add another level to the book. Again, as with the T-34 history, I wanted Eastland to develop the Romanov arc purely on a selfish level for I found the blend of fiction and history incredibly moreish.

Sam Eastland’s The Red Coffin is unputdownable and proof if ever it was required that one should never judge a book by its cover. Completely engrossing and highly addictive, Inspector Pekkala is a character that oozes longevity and a certain intrigue.

Pubished by Faber & Faber The Red Coffin is available in Kindle & Paperback

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1 Response » to “The Red Coffin by Sam Eastland – Book Review”

  1. I agree that the cover is far more appealing than the blurb.

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