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Book Review: Cold Blood by James Fleming

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Charlie Doig's thirst for revenge impels him into the chaotic depths of a dying White Russia as he chases, in an armored locomotive, after Glebov, Bolshavik and killer of Doig's beautiful wife, Elizaveta, and the rest of his family at the Pink House, in James Fleming's unusual historical thriller Cold Blood.

Cold Blood's first person point of view gives the thriller an immediacy that brings alive the chaotic time of the Russian Revolution. One particularly haunting and beautiful piece of writing comes when Doig and Joseph, his uncle's house steward at the Rykov palace, walk through the eerily silent, misty streets of St. Petersburg one October night on their way to a Lenin rally, where they hope to kill Glebov. As they walk, a trumpet sounds. At first they think that it heralds a Bolshevik battalion, but it is but a lone fanfare to the dying past. Suddenly, a truck filled with Bolsheviks appears out of the fog and Doig and Joseph barely manage to escape with their lives. When they finally make it to the Smolny palace, it is a striking image, a lone building illuminated by electrical lights, a “battleship paying the country a state visit…”

Doig makes his way into the hornet's nest of Bolsheviks, disguised as a mushroom seller, even coming face-to-face with Lenin himself. He eventually spots Glebov, standing himself some 30 feet from the man he despises. Alas, he cannot take his nemesis then and there but must escape before Glebov spots him. In another thriller a conflict or a chase ensues as two enemies come within so close a proximity. But all we get here is a disappointment rather than a confrontation or even the beginning of a chase. And so the novel suffers from a plot hampered by the lack of muscular opposition to Doig's quest for revenge.

No one stalks Doig through the story, certainly not Glebov, who would be the natural choice after wiping out Doig's family at the Pink House. Indeed, once his murderous rampage is done, Glebov becomes like Ahab's whale: now seen, now vanished into the depths of Russia while Doig is left to his own devices as he mounts an expedition after him.

Like Ahab, Doig is perhaps a bit mad, too: instead of trying to get away from the madness that already claimed his family — he certainly has the money to do so — he plunges back into it. Not that Doig's bit of madness is out of character for the place and time in which he exists. Russia in this moment of anarchy is nothing if not mad. For example, while riding a tram down Nevsky street, Doig is the subject of a come-on from a woman he latter learns is a librarian and a corset salesgirl. They have sex in her apartment. The whole thing is rather shocking for its brazenness but depicts the moment of time when anything is possible. This suspension of normally operative rules gives Fleming some elbow room with his story, but in the end, the lack of a powerful, active opposition to his quest lessens the thrill of the chase in this chase story.

Although not a typical thriller, Cold Blood offers a story that parallels the time and historical moment in which it takes place, filled with fiery, perhaps mad characters who are unabashedly Darwinian in a struggle motivated by irrational forces – and as unique as the time it is set in.

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About A. Jurek

A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org