04 March 2015

A Killing Winter - Tom Callaghan

A Killing WinterI think we can safely say that we’ve hit peak Soviet Detective—been there, done that, let’s move on –- but Tom Callaghan’s hugely enjoyable debut A Killing Winter puts new meat on some old bones.

His debut detective Akyl Borubeav walks the mean post-Soviet streets of Kyrgyzstan— and the streets of Bishkek are meaner than most.

The blurb needs a snifter:

‘The Kyrgyz winter reminds us that the past is never dead, simply waiting to ambush us around the next corner’.

When Inspector Akyl Borubaev of Bishkek Murder Squad arrives at the brutal murder scene of a young woman, all evidence hints at a sadistic serial killer on the hunt for more prey.

But when the young woman’s father turns out to be a leading government minister, the pressure is on Borubaev to solve the case not only quickly but also quietly, by any means possible. Until more bodies are found…

Still in mourning after his wife’s recent death, Borubaev descends into Bishkek’s brutal underworld, a place where no-one and nothing is as it seems, where everyone is playing for the highest stakes, and where violence is the only solution.

Bishkek, as filtered through Tom Callaghan’s wicked imagination, is a brutally corrupt place where everything and everyone is going to hell in a handcart. Borubaev finds himself caught between vicious gangsters and the implacable cruelty of the toxic state apparatus, which busies itself with clinging to power. Its citizens are dropping like flies thanks to a poisonous new drug called Krokodil, which literally makes bits of you fall off.

The foul stench of corruption pervades every page of A Killing Winter—after sampling some choice Bishkek nightlife over a couple of chapters, you’ll be scratching your groin and brushing your teeth to get the fetid stench of vodka off your breath.

The melancholy and cynical inspector Borubaev, our first-person companion, is, of course, a kind of compromised old knight in the noir style. Following the death of his beloved wife, he’s trying desperately to pull his shit together. He’s the only person trying to stay off the vodka in a society which is drowning in it, as he trudges through the snow-covered streets moving from one consonant-heavy place to another, meeting charming ladies and gentlemen. Callaghan flips a few other noir archetypes on their head in the shape of the deadly femme-fatale Saltanat and Borubaev’s amiable gangster chum Kursan.

Kyrgzstan is a terrifically compromised state, forever on the verge of the kind of revolution that inevitably puts the same people back in power, bickering with its Uzbek neighbour, and – very topical, this – attempting to stay under the radar of the Russian and Chinese superpowers that border it. What the good citizens of Bishkek must make of Callaghan’s portrayal of their city, which is both repellent and sentimental, god only knows

If the central mystery stumbles towards the end, then the journey is still hugely enjoyable. Callaghan is a hell of a writer, with a tremendous sense of pace and an arch ear for juicy dialogue, and the pages flies by. On the basis of this novel, however, I will not be saving up my air miles.

Many thanks to Quercus for the review copy, and I’m delighted to say that Tom Callaghan gives us the intel on Borubaev, Kyrgzstan, and the business of writing, later in the week.