MOSCOW NOIR edited by Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen

Book Quote:

“I had thought I lived in one of the best neighborhoods in Moscow. Right next to the Sokol railway station and the large triangle of Bratsky Park, with its stately old lime trees. The park ends right at a lane of chestnuts, straight as an arrow, bordering an elegant square. That lane runs up to the famous Birch Grove Park, as big as a small forest. To live in a place surrounded by trees and green parks—what more could you wish for? Well, for one thing, that there weren’t sexual predators roaming around in them.”

–from “The Coat that Smelled Like Earth” by Dimitri Kosyrev (Master Chen).

Book Review:

Review by Sudheer Apte (JUN 1, 2010)

Akashic Books has become the Starbucks of noir, with new locations in their Noir Series franchise opening every day. Moscow Noir is a story collection set in Moscow. Each story is set in a particular location in the city, and there is a small, hand-drawn map at the beginning showing where these neighborhoods are. These particular stories are originally in Russian, each translated into English for the collection.

Apart from their beat, what is common to all these stories is their dark and menacing subject matter. Thomas Hobbes wrote in the seventeenth century Leviathan that, in the natural state of mankind, a man’s life is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” These adjectives would all apply to these stories set in today’s Russian Federation. Sordid crimes, gangsters and other underworld characters, sometimes supernatural themes, and a hefty body count characterize most of them.

Russia, and Moscow in particular, has a multi-layered and long history of suffering, offering up a rich mine of trauma, oppression, and unresolved conflict. It also has a long literary tradition. The best stories in the collection have some reverberations of a hoary past on the everyday life of a neighborhood. My favorite is “The Coat that Smelled Like Earth,” by Dimitri Kosyrev (Master Chen), where a Sherlock Holmes-like protagonist, a psychiatrist who is an amateur sleuth, tries to dig into a series of sexual assaults near his home, and unearths strange connections to Soviet-era buildings and bomb shelters under an abandoned military airport.

The book’s two editors together run an agency in Saint Petersburg for Russian writers worldwide, and their selections reflect a wide range. Among the fourteen stories, no author is represented twice. Some stories are set on a large-scale epic canvas, evoking the old deprivations of the two World Wars, when entire populations were displaced by hunger and war. Others are more intimate: in “Daddy Loves Me” by Maxim Maximov, a schoolteacher who lives in her old father’s apartment poisons him. In true Russian fashion, the poison does not work as promised by her underworld contacts, and she has to take matters into her own hands.

It is hard to over-emphasize the power of the locations described in some of these stories. The city of Moscow is itself quite a character in real life. The particular neighborhood described in the Kosyrev story, on the northern segment of the Zamoskvoretskaya metro line, is a typical mixed-use neighborhood. Small wooden stalls selling flowers, vegetables, and money changing services jostle for space with big retail stores along the four-lane divided highway called Leningradskiy Prospekt. Leafy but crowded residential apartment blocks sit right next to them, sharing dusty streets with huge, ugly buildings of an aeronautical part maunfacturer, while the subway rumbles underneath. The anonymity of a big, twenty-first century city here lives uneasily with a past, not long ago, when these same buildings were part of a military-industrial complex close to an airport.

The young gum-chewing women and men descending the giant escalators into Sokol metro station today probably never think about that past. These stories might force them to.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 2 readers
PUBLISHER: Akashic Books (June 1, 2010)
REVIEWER: Sudheer Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen
EXTRAS: Publisher Page on Moscow Noir
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Books in the Akashic Noir Series (Alphabetical Order):

June 1, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Mystery/Suspense, Noir, Russia, Short Stories, Translated

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