Wednesday, 22 May 2002

Philip Kerr: Dead Meat (1992)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1993
Review number: 1093

The aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the hardships faced in Russia since seem to have fallen out of the news in recent years. This is probably both because the situation has been gradually improving and because it lacks the novelty value that makes it news in Western Europe. The time following the coup attempt in 1992 was one of great hardship throughout the former USSR, and saw the development of violent organised crime, known generically as the Russian Mafia. (In fact, of course, and as reflected in this novel, there is a lot of rivalry between different gangs, many of which have a racially based organisation, so that the Chechens and Georgians are constantly fighting, for example.) Even if everyday living is easier now, the organised crime syndicates have not gone away. In the realms of fiction, the Russian Mafia seem to be a popular subject for thrillers already. (Proof of this is that it's been used as a scenario for a James Bond film, as well as related events providing the basis for Frederick Forsyth's Icon.)

Philip Kerr's thriller is more realistic than either of these. It is about anti-Mafia units in the police force, the main character being a Moscow policeman ostensibly on a fact finding mission to study the methods used by the St Petersburg equivalent. He is actually meant to be checking that the leader of this unit, named Grushko, is as clean of corruption as he seems, as this is very unlikely in Russia in the early nineties (when inflation and shortages meant that the legitimate income of a policeman didn't go far at all). While the narrator, the Moscow cop, is in St Petersburg, a prominent anti-Mafia journalist (who likes to describe himself as Russia's first investigative journalist) is murdered, and so any consideration about bribery is taken over by the investigation into this crime.

Kerr's novel is based on considerable research, including the co-operative help of the real equivalents of Grushko. He also brings in many of the images associated with Russia in the last decade, such as an unsafe nuclear power industry, crumbling infrastructure, corruption and food queues. The setting is really well done, and makes the novel a bit different, both from the unrealistic stories I've already mentioned and from more conventional crime thrillers which have a similar style (such as Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels). Dead Meat is an engrossing thriller, if bleak, well worth reading and encouraging me to find more Philip Kerr.

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