Newsletter - BUMSTED PICKS OF 2012 - Jack's Picks

Monday Dec 03 2012
by Whodunit

Jack's Picks

During this past year I enjoyed a number of books, but never felt that a single one could be my “book of the year.” I have decided instead to choose one title representative of one of the most important trends in recent crime fiction: the setting of books in Europe in the interwar period, one of the nastiest and most brutal but none the less most important eras in history. The years between 1919 and 1945 witnessed some truly horrendous historical developments, including the rise of the dictators Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Franco. (Curiously enough, until the mid-1930s the term “dictator” was not in Canada a dirty word; the Studebaker Corporation named its top-of-the-line luxury automobile “The Dictator”.) The period also saw the mass murder of millions of people in the Holocaust, the Holdomor, and the Stalinist Purges of the 1930s.

One of the major repressive institutions developed in the interwar years was the Gulag, a series of forced labour camps spread across Russia and Siberia that served to house millions of dissidents and criminals between 1930 and the 1950s. It was through the writings of Alexander Soltzhenitzen that the West first learned of the Gulag, the name of the Russian government agency that administered the camp system – it is the acronym for Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies, officially created on 25 April 1930 and dismantled after Stalin’s death on 13 January 1960. The Gulag had its origins in the Tsarist period, when Russian troublemakers were exiled to the harsh environment of Siberia and forced to help build and construct in the wilderness. Such camps were not the same as the German “concentration camps” of Holocaust notoriety (again, “concentration camp” had not always been a dirty word –the military camps in which Canadian soldiers were housed in 1919 before being transported back to Canada were called “concentration camps”), because they were not deliberately organized as death camps, although the mortality rates in them was very high. The regime had no interest in providing decent living conditions for the prisoners, and shortages of food and warm clothing, as well as unheated buildings, were common. As Soltzhenitzen pointed out in his books, most prisoners had little thought for anything other than survival, but many prisoners, particularly in the later period, were eventually returned to Soviet life. The term “Gulag” was not often used in Russia; the system was called “the camps” or “the zone” or “the meat grinder,” and the official term “corrective labour camp” is perfectly descriptive of the Communist attitude toward the institution. The camps were used to exploit natural resources and to construct infrastructure. At their height they contained between one and two million prisoners at any given time. The death toll in the Gulag was especially high during the war, when many prisoners suffered from starvation. The camps often held their prisoners without walls or barbed wire, because the climate made it difficult to escape, particularly given the frequent physical weakness of the prisoner.

The Gulag system is well dramatized in the book I am nominating as my “book of the year.” It is by a British author whose pseudonym is Sam Eastland and it is entitled Siberian Red, third in a series of novels featuring Inspector Pekkala. By birth a Finn, Pekkala was chosen by the Tsar to be his personal investigator, and with the revolution he is exiled to a labour camp in Siberia. He is eventually resurrected by Joe Stalin, with whom he had been acquainted while working for the Tsar, as a special investigator. In this book he is sent under cover back to his old camp to search for a lost treasure (and in the process solve a series of rather nasty crimes). Some reviewers have complained that Pekkala is more like a superhuman hero than a real life detective, but it seems to me that this criticism is a matter of interpretation. Anyone who has followed Bernie Gunther or Arkady Renko throughout their careers must surely realize that these guys are not ordinary mortals, and in any case, it is not Pekkala as special investigator but Pekkala as victimized prisoner that is most important in this novel. The descriptions of daily life in the camp are well-researched and well-realized, and from them the reader gets quite a good idea of how the Gulag functioned. The emphasis on the partial internal governance of the camp by the prisoners themselves seems to me particularly important because it is so often overlooked. As in most repressive situations, the collaboration of the victims is an important component in the functioning of the system. (Read an excerpt here.)

In February 2013 I will undertake a series of lectures at the University Women’s Club of Winnipeg in which I will attempt to extend the above analysis of Siberian Red to the larger world of crime fiction set in the interwar period, using the fiction to illustrate the history. 

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