Thursday, March 10, 2022

Those Bloody Russians 2 and The Mysteries You have to Read 3: Murder in Moscow (1951), by Andrew Garve

[Paul Winterton] published one more book in 1948 using his own name, Inquest on an Ally.  This was an exhaustive analysis of postwar Soviet policy and ambitions, with meticulous documentation of the way in which the USSR had exploited every concession offered by the West and had offered nothing but intransigence in return.  The message was clear: Do not trust the Russians.  

--John Higgins, Andrew Garve and Soviet Russia (2016)

What made my gorge rise was the thought that once again Moscow was going to put a preposterous story across and get away with it.  One more lie was going to be established and we were all going to have to swallow it it even though we knew it was a lie.  The delegation would go back to England with its smug fables and Mullett's death would be shot and shell for them.  The very person who killed him...would probably be the most vocal in denouncing the killing as a monstrous political assassination.

--Andrew Garve, Murder in Moscow (1951)

Unlike many American and British crime novels featuring Russians, Andrew Garve's Murder in Moscow, the fourth novel which Paul Winterton published under his Andrew Garve pseudonym,  is a not a spy thriller but rather a genuine detective novel.  It concerns the slaying, in his Moscow hotel room, of the head of a leftist British "factfinding" delegation on a tour of Russia.  

I read this novel more than a decade ago and enjoyed it immensely, both for its plot and its setting, which the author, a British journalist turned writer who spent a great deal of time in the Soviet Union during the Thirties and Forties, conveys with great authenticity.  "Author knows his onions and his vodka," colloquially commented a delighted American reviewer of the novel.

Without this authenticity of setting Murder in Moscow would be a good detective novel; with it, it becomes a great one, one you have to read, like Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man and Cornell Woolrich's The Bride Wore Black, reviewed by me here and here

meet the new brutes
same as the old brutes

Especially now.  How much has really changed in Russia?  Not bloody much, it would seem.  The country's run by the same sort of corrupt, murderous bastards who have mostly ruled the benighted country for the last century.  Look at that evil old Putin apparatchik Sergei Lavrov, who today was brazenly spewing the old 2 + 2 = 5, bald-faced lies that the Soviet Communists used to tell back in the Seventies and Eighties (and long before that).  

It's just like what Garve wrote about in Murder in Moscow (see quotation above).

Of course Lavrov essentially is a dirty old Russian Commie, having himself been past forty when the Soviet Union collapsed.  These bastards may have jettisoned formal Communist ideology today as they stuff their pockets with their filthy pilfered lucre, but they are the same old, corrupt, murderous thugs from the past; and one hopes they get their due punishments someday, like the Nazis did before them.

Which is why it surprises me that back in 1986, in defending his inclusion of another Andrew Garve mystery title in Collins' Jubilee reprint series, English crime writer and critic Julian Symons dismissed Murder in Moscow as "dated."  And this was in 1980, mere months after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan!  Sadly, Moscow is not dated at all, Symons' view notwithstanding.  We see that every day in Ukraine.

The narrator of the novel of around 70,000 words is George Gurney, a wartime English journalist in Moscow who has returned to the city in 1951 to report on postwar changes there.  Gurney is clearly a stand-in for the author, who spent the war years 1943-45 as a newsman in Moscow--though Garve himself likely never returned to Russia, having published several anti-Soviet books under his own name in the Forties after he reached England (see quotation above).  

Through Gurney, Garve alludes to this most amusingly in the book:

"I thought all the correspondents who were in Moscow during the war were out of favor." 

"Only those who wrote books about it when they got away.  I didn't write a book."

En route via train to Moscow Gurney encounters the leftist delegation headed by bloviating English minister Rev. Andrew Mullett and including 

Islwyn Thomas, a hotheaded Welsh nationalist

Robert Bolting, a  Labour MP

Dr. Schofield, a prominent professor of economics 

Perdita Manning, aristocratic sculptress, "a leading exponent of socialist realism" with "an infuriating drawl"--"a typical drawing-room Red"

Richard Tranter, "an official of one of the big peace societies"

Joe Cressey, a factory worker seeing the USSR for the first time as a protégé of Reverend Mullett

bibulous Mrs. Clarke, "the representative of some Cooperative Women's League in South London"

Who murdered the minister in Moscow?  The MVD won't tell!

When Mullett is fatally bopped on the head with a bottle in his hotel room, an elderly waiter with links to the ancien regime is arrested and promptly "confesses" to the crime; yet Gurney is suspicious of the other members of the delegation and sticks his journalist's nose into the affair, along with his American friend and fellow newspaperman, Jefferson L. Clayton.  Jeff, we soon learn, has a Russian girlfriend, Tanya, who is seemingly implicated in the business and is promptly packed off to the Crimea for a "vacation."  

There are a couple of other reporter characters in the novel, a Mass Observation enthusiast and a droll and jaded chap by the name of Waterhouse, who is like something out of Graham Greene.

Of course this snooping by Western reporters into the killing incurs the wrath of the government, which means our amateur investigators must tread carefully.  They know that in Russia people who don't toe the party line can lose their toes--and worse.

This in my estimation is a terrific book, with plenty of true detection (it might even be called a sealed room mystery--you will have to read it to see what I mean), a superbly rendered setting, good, frequently wry, writing and even a certain amount of moral force (if you believe, as I do, that the Soviet Communism was one of the great evils of the twentieth century).  Further, we have the satisfaction of seeing justice done, at least as much as that was possible in such a situation.  Justice was done distressingly rarely in the real Russia, but at least in fiction we can dream of better things.

Again oddly to me, Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor omitted Murder in Moscow from their 100 classics of crime and detection series, in favor of the first Andrew Garve crime novel, No Tears for Hilda (1950).  In 1967 Garve himself informed Jacques Barzun that he thought Moscow "almost the best of his stories."  He professed himself bemused that Barzun and Taylor preferred Hilda, which he deemed a "prentice work."  Personally I agree with Garve!  Though B&T did allow that Moscow was a "masterpiece."  I agree with that too.

Like Smallbone Deceased (1950), by Garve's contemporary Michael Gilbert, Murder in Moscow is proof that the detective novel with its comforting certitudes was holding on as the world entered the second half of the turbulent twentieth century, where one totalitarian regime had been successfully resisted and then routed at great cost but another was running rampant.  It's seven decades later but the Russian beast is ravenously prowling Europe once again.


  1. It does seem that there are people who would rather believe nonsense than the evidence of their eyes. Soviet communism seems to me a totalitarian extension of the rule of the tsars. In the United Kingdom many old school communists refused to believe in the the real nature of Stalin's Russia. George Orwell, who realised it very early on, was excommunicated by the left in the United Kingdom for refusing to believe in the 'miracles' of the USSR. The problem wasn't really communism, because the USSR was never communist, but totalitarian. All totalitarian states have more in common with each other than differences, whatever their professed ideologies. These days the vacillation in my own country over the Ukraine and Russia is due to the influence of the massive amounts of money stolen from the Russian people that is hidden in London and other parts of the UK. We are the enablers of a totalitarian kleptocracy, and in doing that are progressing towards a totalitarian kleptocracy of our own. Sigh. Loving the Garve retrospective.

    1. Yeah, I think the men who ran the USSR made a great show of Communist ideology, but it was bullshit almost from the get-go and certainly it was utterly hollowed out by the time of the Seventies when Brezhnev was in charge and I was old enough to pay attention to these things. I honestly don't believe Communism as originally envisioned is workable in practice however; I think corruption of the ideal is inevitable. But they certainly made a ghastly mess of things in the USSR and its Eastern Europe bloc, China, North Korea, Cambodia, etc.

      Yes, there's definitely a view that totalitarianism/authoritarianism is simply baked into the Russian character, which I can understand looking at the absolutism of the tsars and the totalitarianism of the Communists and authoritarianism/totalitarianism of Putin. There were a few very brief windows of liberal democracy, under Kerensky and Yeltsin, but it was always highly tenuous. It honestly wouldn't surprise if Putin is actually supported by a majority of Russians, though I'm sure he's most popular with the more unsophisticated, older and uninformed. If you are a Russian in your early thirties you wouldn't even remember life under Communism, but on the other hand Putin has restored so many of the old ways. Life in Russia right now at this moment doesn't seem all that different from what I see than life under Communists, the kind of thing Garve wrote about.

      What I like about Garve is that he wrote from a more informed view of Russians and the USSR. So many classic crime writers just gave us these lazy caricatures, writing as they did from this sort of smug complacency that the English way was basically perfect and all was right with the British world if people like Gandhi would just shut up already. The leftist crime writers GDH and Margaret Cole wanted to correct this, but then Douglas Cole in particular turned into one of those apologists for the USSR who rather shamed himself in the process in my view. but there's always a tendency for people to want to excuse the misdeeds of "their side."

    2. Oh yes, I'm glad you're enjoying the pieces and thank you for commenting. when I started this blog I was told don't devote too many posts in succession to the same author, but I think there will be one or two more on Garve coming up. Looking around the net, I feel he has been "underblogged." The Symons "entertainer" tag has caused some people to view him as a lightweight, which I don't believe is really true. Certainly Christie and the Crime Queens never gave us anything like Murder in Moscow, as much as they did. They wouldn't have had the experience to write such a book. Christie's excursions into political material late in life are, well, muddled, to say the least.

    3. And I agree with you about Western enablers. You know the saying often attributed to Marx (and others):


  2. " It concerns the slaying, in his Moscow hotel room, of the head of a leftist British "factfinding" delegation on a tour of Russia. "

    Garve was a prophet too! Look at the death of Malcolm Caldwell in Cambodia in 1978. The government of Pol Pot murdered as a spy a British "expert" who had happily swallowed their every lie.

    1. Very interesting, I don't believe I ever heard of him, although I remember following the situation in Cambodia even back then, when I would have been 12. Here's our friend Wikipedia, it does sound like the murder has some similarity, although in the book it's more a "classic" crime, privately motivated:

      "The motives for Caldwell's murder remain unexplained.[8] Andrew Anthony, writing in The Guardian, notes: "Certainly there must have been some kind of in-house involvement, as the guests were guarded. But who instructed the guards, and why they did so, remains a subject of speculation." Journalist Wilfred Burchett and some of Caldwell's family members believe that Caldwell was killed on the orders of Pol Pot, possibly following a disagreement between the two during their meeting. Alternatively, four of the guards at the guest house were arrested and two of them "confessed" after torture at the Khmer Rouge's S-21 prison that the killers were subversives attempting to undermine the Khmer Rouge regime and that Caldwell was killed "to prevent the Party from gathering friends in the world".

      Here's a long piece on Caldwell from the Guardian:

      I've grown rather out of sorts with the Right since the Eighties, but I have to admit even when I was an adolescent I grew tired of the Left's rationalizations for the behavior of the USSR and other Communist countries. Government has to be accountable to its citizenry or abuse is inevitable, I don't care whether the government is deemed Right or Left. Of course sometimes the citizenry messes up badly too. That's why our Constitution tries to limit everyone, lol.

    2. Don't forget Putin's hobbling of any journalists who'd like to enlighten the Russian people about their leader! Regarding the "more unsophisticated, older, and uninformed" citizens of Russia, don't we in the US have our own, homegrown version of those citizens? I remember reading quotes from Trump & Co that sounded as if they'd come from the pages of "Pravda" (which may give my age away). It really annoys me when his followers claim they're such great patriots, in spite of supporting a wannabe-dictator. Maybe if they spent a year or two in Russia they'd feel differently?

    3. Some of the people on the Trump right, like Candace Owen and Tucker Carlson, seem to be fervent admirers of Putin. And dictators in general. Franklin Graham the evangelist has praised him too. You apparently can qualify as a "Christian leader" in their eyes while murdering and repressing people, as long as you make sure to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

  3. I grew tired of the Left's rationalizations for the behavior of the USSR and other Communist countries. I recall when at art college in the 70s I asked a visiting lecturer from the Socialist Workers Party what the position of artists would be after the revolution. It appeared we would be painting murals... I hate the false dichotomy of dividing everything into right- and left-wing poitions. I am increasingly a fan of pragmatism. What will improve things for everyone? I'm personally right-wing on some things and left-wing on others, because I care about outcomes, not ideologies. I'm certainly not credulous enough to believe anything because Marx or Jordan Peterson said it.

    1. Yeah, I totally view myself as an independent these days. People say you get run over in the middle of the road, but you have to learn to dodge.