Harlequin’s Costume Synopsis
The year is 1871. Prince von Ahrensburg, Austria’s military attaché to St. Petersburg, has been killed in his own bed. The murder threatens diplomatic consequences for Russia so dire that they could alter the course of history. Leading the investigation into the high-ranking diplomat’s death is Chief Inspector Ivan Putilin, but the Tsar has also called in the notorious Third Department – the much-feared secret police – on the suspicion that the murder is politically motivated. As the clues accumulate, the list of suspects grows longer; there are even rumors of a werewolf at large in the capital. Suspicion falls on the diplomat’s lover and her cuckolded husband, as well as Russian, Polish and Italian revolutionaries, not to mention Turkish spies. True to his maxim that “coincidence and passion are the real conspirators,” Putilin seeks answers inside the diplomatic circus as well, which leads him to struggles with criminals and with the secret police itself. When the mystery is solved, the only person who saw it coming was Putilin.
Harlequin’s Costume is the first volume in a series whose main character is based on the real-life Ivan Putilin, the Tsar’s Chief of Police in St. Petersburg from 1866 to 1892. The entire trilogy, Chief Inspector Putilin, appeared as a mini-series on Russian television in 2007.
Brilliantly translated by Marian Schwartz, Harlequin’s Costume is now for the first time being published in English.
BOOK REVIEW by Tony Ziemek
Successful detective fiction creates a landscape (often an unfamiliar one) into which the reader is drawn and allowed to wander a little. The landscape is often strewn with incidental (or are they?), atmospheric details inviting our gaze, as we hunt for clues alongside the central character. Harlequin’s Costume exquisitely recreates 19th Century St Petersburg and is rich in such details.
The following excerpt is a fine example of economical, evocative writing and perceptive translation:
Ten minutes later they had driven under the arch of the General Headquarters, turned, and were driving down Nevsky. Suddenly the shouts of cabbies and coachmen rang out, and there was a continuous whoosh of rubber tires, like the fizzle of beer foam settling in mugs. A buoyant, elegant crowd was flowing down both sides of the avenue, noisily, as always happens during the first few warm evenings of Spring when the very air is suffused with the promise of a change for the better.
Honestly, I feel like writing a short essay on why that paragraph is so effective but uncontrived, aural more than visual and allusive beyond the scene described. Even the perfect use of commas is worth mentioning (look away, grammar pedants!).
The plot with its high-profile murder is set against the political background of the great European empires and the ever-present threat of another war. This is in stark contrast to the domestic detail of the Putilin household and Ivan Dmitrievich’s wife, who fusses comically over his digestion. Predictably perhaps, the wife and some other characters are closer to caricatures, whereas Ivan Dmitrievich is subtly created from dialogue and quiet asides such as:
While the entire company was exterminating hares, Ivan Dmitrievich was gathering mushrooms,…
There are many delightful details such as this that bring a bathetic note to the plot. Continuing the mushroom theme, a jar of pickled mushrooms in Ivan Dmietrievich’s pocket is assumed to be a gun. Elsewhere, quintessential Russian vigour is evoked through irresistible chapter headings:
“Polish Prince, Bulgarian Student, Serpent Tempter, Severed Head”
Furthermore, entire sections appear to channel Dostoyevsky to haunting effect.
The book’s structure has Ivan Dmitrievich Putilin, former Chief Inspector of the St Petersburg police, dictating his memoirs to a literary assistant, Safonov. This allows for peculiarly Russian reflections on the truth of the narrative. At one point, Putilin asks Safonov:
“Do you think they’d let something like that into print?”
“They print worse than that and nothing happens. The world hasn’t stopped turning.”
“The fact that the police were consorting with thieves doesn’t bother you?”
“Who doesn’t know that?”
Eventually they decide to omit the story. This may be set in the 19th Century, but some things are timeless.
On a negative note, sometimes the plot seems to lurch awkwardly. At one point, I thought I must have missed a chapter through some quirk of the E-reader. At other times, I lost the thread of the plot development and had to backtrack to regain the flow of the narrative. In part, this is a product of the usual Russian challenge of switches between the patronymics and the surnames of characters from one chapter to the next. However, the cast of characters is not large enough to cause significant complication. In the end, I think the book would have benefited from a heavier editorial hand to better showcase its many strengths.
Harlequin’s Costume is well worth reading though for its bursts of brilliance, atmospheric detail and flashes of humour:
In Bulgaria, there are a thousand songs about red wine and only one about white. Do you know how it begins?…
”Oh white wine why aren’t you red?”
I look forward to volumes two and three!
BOOK RATING: The Story 3 / 5 ; The Writing 3 / 5 but occasionally 5/5!
~ Tony Ziemek is the lead editor of Ed Fresh Editorial Services.
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Author Information: Leonid Yuzefovich grew up in Perm, in the Ural Mountains. He is a historian with twin interests in Old Russian diplomacy and Mongolia, the country where he spent three years in the Soviet army. Autocrat of the Desert is Yuzefovich’s biography of Baron Ungern-Shternberg, a Russian adventurer and anti-Bolshevik who set himself up as a warlord in Mongolia during the Russian Civil War. Yuzefovich has published many stories, essays, novels, and historical monographs, and won several prizes, including 2001 National Bestseller prize for Prince of the Wind, another installment in the Putilin trilogy, and Russia’s 2009 Big Book Award for his contemporary novel Cranes and Pygmies. Since 2000s Yuzefovich works on television, writing screenplays for historical serials and works on film adaptation of his novels.
Marian Schwartz is a prize-winning translator of Russian fiction, history, biography, criticism, and fine art. Information on other works translated can be found at her website marionschwartz.com.
* Receiving this title free from Glagoslav Publications did not affect the reviewers expression of their honest opinions in the review above.