Margarita Khemlin is a Russian-Jewish author born in Ukraine, and this novel was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the Russian Big Book Prize. It’s set in Chernigov, Ukraine, and it tells the story of Mikhail Ivanovich Tsupkoy (Mishka) who is the investigator of the title, and the narrator.
On the first page we learn that Mishka was in Soviet Intelligence during the Great Patriotic War (i.e. WW2) and that now he’s with the police force in the small town of Chernigov working as an investigator (i.e. a detective). And we learn that while the usual procedure for serious crimes like murder is to bring in a criminal investigator from the Criminal Investigation Department or the Prosecutor’s Office, that in the case of Lilia Vorobeichik’s murder things didn’t work out quite like that. Mishka’s boss indulged him, a touch against the book, and so it fell to him, a humble investigator, to look into the murder as it stood. So the reader’s antennae are on alert: something is a bit suss, but is Mishka a party to it, or not?
The author keeps us guessing right through to the end. The man accused of Lilia’s murder conveniently commits suicide the day before court. One of Mishka’s colleagues does too. Mishka keeps going back to the scene of the crime even though the case is closed, and he tells us that this is because he knows something is not quite right, but is that true? Lilia’s family and friends don’t think so, but they turn out to be mixed up in all kinds of dodgy business themselves.
What lifts this novel out of the usual police procedural/possibly corrupt cop scenario are the undercurrents of Soviet life in the 1950s. The war is not long over, and Jewish communities are still recovering from the horror. As the Germans closed in on Ukraine, Soviet civilians were evacuated, but there sometimes ‘wasn’t room’ for the Jews to be taken to safety. Old men and women were summarily shot by the advancing Germans, but some children were hidden away. Those that weren’t denounced to suffer horrific deaths along with their would-be saviours survived as orphans. Some of these escaped their fate in state-run orphanages where their religion was suppressed, but some were taken in under irregular adoption arrangements and remained part of the Jewish community. All this comes to light as Mishka gradually unravels Lilia’s connection to the small town of Oster…
Complicating things further are the conspiracies and denunciations that defined the Stalinist era. The fear of being interrogated (and inevitably, tortured) about anything makes everyone distort the truth. People cave in at the sight of a uniform. They lie. They confess to things they haven’t done. They invent things. They terrorise children with stories about what will happen to them if they don’t co-operate. So each time Mishka adds another piece to the jigsaw, the information is suspect. He thinks he’s very clever at winkling out the real truth. The reader is not sure whether he is or he isn’t…
Mishka by his own account seems so plausible, so reasonable, so fair and so tolerant. So trapped by circumstances so that all he can do is to submit with resignation to the difficulties of life under Stalin. (He reminds me a bit of the Venetian detective in Donna Leon’s novels. All he can do is shrug his shoulders and avoid confronting his own complicity in corruption). But little by little Mishka reveals more about himself. When he adopts a child to become the son he can never have, we see his slipperiness:
When we drew up the paperwork for Iosif, Dovid signed everything on the spot. Thanks to my connections, the matter was settled in a jiffy. All in all, nothing connected Basin and me any more. Other than that Iosif’s big brothers lived with him. But so what? Weren’t there plenty of children farmed out to different families during the war? What were people meant to do now? Bring them all back into one big family to trundle along together? (p. 64)
We find out too that the rough and ready methods of wartime Soviet Intelligence are not so easily shed.
That wonderful cover art is a detail from Interior II by Marc Chagall.
This is a beaut book to keep in mind for #WIT(women in translation) Month for next year. Or any time!
Author: Margarita Khemlin
Title: The Investigator
Translated from the Russian by Melanie Moore
Publisher: Glagoslav, London, 2015, first published in 2012
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav
Available from Fishpond: The Investigator