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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

Policeman Investigates a Nation's Gloomy Soul

MONSTRUM by Donald James; Villard; 438 pages, $24.95

September 12, 1997|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One would think the Russians had suffered enough in the 20th century without having to fight a civil war at the beginning of the 21st. But this is the premise of Donald James' police thriller, "Monstrum," set in Moscow in 2015--a year the narrator, Inspector Constantin Vadim, hopes will prove to be a "New Dawn" for his country.

Vadim has been a moderate supporter of the victorious "Nationalist" cause, which fought under the old double-eagle czarist flag. His estranged wife, Julia, was a general in the "Marxist-anarchist" armies, commanding an all-female division. Now she is in hiding. Vadim, thanks to his childhood friendship with Roy Rolkin, a rising officer in the Nationalist secret police, is transferred from his native Murmansk to the capital, where he is handed two assignments.

Because he looks like Vice President Leonid Koba, the secret police chief and the real power behind the Nationalists' elderly poet-president, Vadim is given plastic surgery and trained as one of a number of "doubles" who impersonate Koba at public functions.

And, as a career officer in the militia--the ordinary police--Vadim is assigned to track down a serial killer nicknamed the Monstrum, who has been carving up women in the war-battered Red Presnya district of Moscow.

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None of this is very plausible, and James, a British historian whose previous books include "The Fall of the Russian Empire," surely knows it. But he seems to shrug off the thriller plotting as a necessary evil. He's content to let his expertise show in the little things--the details of police procedure and Russian life--and in the beguiling voice of his hero.

Though we don't always trust the story Vadim tells us in "Monstrum," we trust Vadim himself. He blends the street smarts of the American private eye with Russian emotional depth. He's a hard-drinking provincial among city slickers, an instantly likable sort who addresses us as "brothers." He's too nice a guy to notice that he's irresistible to women, too aware of his own naivete to appreciate how sure-footedly he navigates the urban maze.

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The killer's trail takes him from bombed-out slums to luxury Western hotels to the subterranean lair of a sex cult to railroad stations swarming with prostitutes and orphans. Women throw themselves at him--Imogen Shepherd, an American administrator of the amnesty Koba has offered to the losing side; Dr. Natalya Karlova, a police pathologist; Rolkin's flirtatious wife; even Julia, who asks him to risk everything by helping her escape to the West.

Vadim has a terrible time deciding whom to trust. He hates Julia but can't stop loving her. The war has cost him so much--including the life of their 6-year-old son--that it's natural for him to hope for a "New Dawn" when it's obvious to us that the Kobas and Rolkins are ushering in yet another nightmare chapter of Russian history, complete with torture chambers and a resurrected gulag.

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"Other Western societies are not perfect," Dr. Karlova mourns. "But Russia has never even approached a just society. Not even for a few years." Later Vadim himself wonders what darkness in his country's soul has prevented it from attaining even 19th century standards of democracy.

James clearly intended "Monstrum" to be a meditation on this gloomy theme. The serial killer is a symbol of an even rougher beast he sees slouching toward Russia in our own time as well as in his imagined future. The civil war, Vadim recalls, followed a period of "turmoil, futile strikes, demonstrations . . . gang control of almost everything."

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At the climax of the novel, when Vadim identifies the Monstrum, he learns something that illustrates the theme perfectly. But it seems so cruel, so manipulative on James' part, not to mention so improbable, that we recoil in disgust.

James seems to sense this. Indeed, he's willing to jettison his theme to save his story. Vadim, he assures us, was mistaken in the literal sense, if not in the symbolic. And he proceeds to give us a happy ending--even less likely than what went before. But by then we'll take a New Dawn any way we can get one.

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