I love a good mystery novel. This is a relatively new interest of mine, and it is a taste I developed through the influence of my wife, Marge, who has always been a voracious reader of novels, especially detective novels. Because of my love of history, I particularly enjoy historical novels, and when I find mystery stories or detective novels carefully written about an earlier period of history — especially Russian history — I can hardly put the book down. There are two works of fiction that I recently finished, both written about events related to the Romanov dynasty, its collapse, and the Bolshevik takeover in 1917. Both authors have done their homework on the historical period about which they are writing, so the novels offer significant insights into Russian society and culture. These books demonstrate how good literature can help us understand our world.
One of my favorite mystery writers is John Lescroart. His stories about Dismas Hardy and Abe Glitsky are fascinating; after reading a number of his books, one becomes attached to these San Francisco detectives, their families, their domestic routines, and their hang-ups. The crimes in each book are intriguing and Lescroart’s social commentary is often insightful.
Recently, I discovered two of Lescroart’s earliest novels, Son of Holmes (1986) and Rasputin’s Revenge (1987). In Son of Holmes, Lescroart introduces the reader to Auguste Lupa, one of the greatest detectives of all time, and part of the mystery in this book is whether or not Lupa is the son of Sherlock Holmes. In fact, part of the story relates to the question of whether or not Sherlock Holmes was a real person or just a fictional character. The first story takes place in France during the First World War.
Rasputin’s Revenge builds on the characters from the first novel, moving the action to the court of the Romanovs from October 1916 to January 1917. The mystery is a fascinating one that involves Russia at the outbreak of World War One; the role of Rasputin and his close connections to Empress Alexandra and her hemophiliac son, Alexis; and the disintegration of the Russian Empire. The book takes a creative turn at the end when Sherlock Holmes appears, aided by his assistant, Watson — but that’s all I can say without revealing too much.
Because Lescroart has done his research, the novel contains great insights into the turmoil surrounding the collapse of Romanov rule and the gap between the wealthy elites, who were dependent on their relationship to the Tsar, and the average Russians, who were struggling to survive, especially once the war began. When you read this book, you understand why the reign of Nicholas II was a failure, and why no one defended the old order when it collapsed in 1917.
“The Kitchen Boy”
Robert Alexander wrote a national bestseller in 2003, entitled The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar. It is a fascinating story about the imprisonment and execution of Nicholas II and his family, and about all of the mystery that still surrounds these bloody events. Did two of the Tsar’s children survive the execution? Why were the bodies of these two children never found when the Romanovs’ grave was discovered in 1991? The story is told through the eyes of a Russian who later emigrated to the States and who claims to be the kitchen boy to the Romanovs, the last living witness to the Romanov family’s execution.
Because he has done considerable historical research into this time period, Alexander writes a story that offers insights into Russian life during the tumultuous days of the Bolshevik revolution. Here’s an example in which the storyteller, a Russian émigré, opens up his heart about the differences between Russians and Americans. After noting their similarities (both have big hearts, both welcome people into their homes, and both are desperate to be liked), he adds this observation: “The truth is that Americans cannot possibly begin to understand the depth of the Russian soul, the Orthodox soul. . . . every Russian, in his heart of hearts, believes that sin brings suffering, great suffering. That in turn leads to repentance, and it is that very cleansing which eventually delivers one closer unto the feet of God Himself.”
Later, the “kitchen boy” notes, “My passport says I am now an American, but in my heart I know I am and will always be Russkie, and like every other person of my country, I want to judge, I want to blame, I want to point away from myself. . . . [I] will do anything to escape blame and responsibility. . . .” While the story reveals a Tsar who was a loving father, a gentle and tender man, it also underscores that his reign was one of the bloodiest in all of Russian history.
What We Can Learn
Historical novels, even mystery stories about earlier periods of history, can deepen our understanding of other societies and cultures — if the authors are serious observers and do their homework. Both John Lescroart and Robert Alexander are writers of this caliber. They put flesh on leading figures of history and give us insights into the values and moods of the period they are describing. For those of us in the West, these novels provide a great introduction to Russian society, a society very different from our own. For this reason, there are helpful lessons to be learned while enjoying an intriguing story line.
One thing is certain — both authors know how to tell a great story. Just remember: it’s fiction!