If one reads books long enough, there are certain types of fiction that get old, very quickly. Adhering too closely to formula and adding nothing with style, some detective novels, for example, wear themselves thin within a few pages. Seeming to forget that it’s possible to write familiar material in an engaging manner, things like prose, writing between the lines, presentation, making bolder assumptions of reader intelligence, and other elements of more sophisticated fiction get tossed aside in favor of trying to write the latest bestseller. Thankfully, Jon Courtenay Grimwood does not forget. His 2016 Moskva (as written by “Jack Grimwood”) is a brilliantly styled murder/espionage story set in Soviet Russia in the 1980s that does nothing new in broad terms, and yet does everything flawlessly at the detail level, resulting in a roughly familiar yet highly engaging novel—the perfect relaxing read.
Tom Fox is in exile, of sorts. British intelligence angry at a rash choice he made involving the deaths of others, he has been sent to Moscow on a low-grade assignment to gather information about the influence of religion on the state. Set in the mid-80s, Soviet power is in effect but on the wane, meaning more government officials are reaching out to attend the social gatherings of the city’s various embassies, including the British. Meeting one such important Soviet official at a gathering, Fox likewise runs into the daughter of the British ambassador at the same party, a rebellious fifteen-year old named Anna who reminds Fox of his own daughter, now dead. The teenager turning up missing in the days that follow, Tom is called into the diplomat’s office and his mission quickly changed from information gathering to investigating a missing child. The trouble for Fox is, the deeper he digs, the deeper the implications for Anna, British-Soviet relations, and even his own life.
Significantly better than my plot synopsis, Moskva is pitch-perfect murder mystery/espionage fiction. When I dream of an engaging, intelligent novel that does not get involved with contemporary politics yet is sophisticated enough to avoid formula, this is what I dream of. Everything, from pace to prose, style to story, has been chipped to the bone of compelling story. The characters are etched into reality, dialogue operates between the lines, plot develops and escalates organically (save perhaps a helicopter in a certain scene), historical detail does not take center stage (rather is integrated with plot), and a dark mood complements and pervades the chill of both Soviet Russia and Soviet winter. As a pure product of fiction, it’s really tough to do better.
In the end, Moskva is clearly a descendant of Le Carre’s brand of fiction. Grimwood may perhaps even throw a nod of recognition his way a few times. But in no way does Moskva feel like an imitator. The strength of the prose, the awareness of scene, and overall ability to imbue the narrative with gravitas makes Grimwood’s offering singular and mature in its own right. 80s Soviet Russia likewise rendered in effective, minimalist form, all aspects of writing detective fiction synthesize into one vision that truly satisfies. Recommended. (And can I just say, I love that Grimwood used the name Jack Grimwood for this book. It’s perfect.)