The only problem with Anthony Olcott's first Russian mystery novel, "Murder at the Red October," was one that irritated me beyond all reasonable expectation: the unheroic hero, Moscow hotel detective Duvakin, whom I had come to care a good deal about--his life was such an ordeal, yet somehow punctuated with glittering shards of good fortune and an ability to land on his feet--wound up being carted off in a limo from which he couldn't escape, well and truly doomed, delivered into the hands of his most treacherous "friends."
Such a denouement, to such an interesting novel that was superior in every way to the best seller of the day, "Gorky Park," left a particularly bitter aftertaste, robbed me in fact of a good bit of the pleasure the novel had afforded me.
Now the doomed Duvakin--back from what had seemed an inevitable voyage to the great salt mine in the sky--is with us again, four years later in novel time, exiled to the godforsaken back-of-beyond city of Magadan, surfacing as a very minor party functionary in the propaganda division, spending his time in such crucial tasks as taking measurements for the cutout Lenin to be erected on May Day. Betrayed he had been by his false friend, the duplicitous Polkovnikov of the KGB, at the conclusion of his first brush with intrigue--betrayed but not quite liquidated.
Thus, he toils now in the city slush of a Magadan spring, scraping out his meager existence but at least somewhat favored through his party membership. The love of his life from the previous novel is only a memory: part of his punishment was the order never to contact her again and four years later he has steadfastly obeyed, not wanting to bring trouble raining down on her. He is alone, unloved, but alive. And he has a job which, as inevitably would be the irony he's heir to, he does too well. By sheerest chance he uncovers a smuggling operation that produces the kind of Soviet millionaires whose very existence, it has been decided in high places, are a threat to the system.
A man suspected of involvement in the capitalistic smuggling venture is beaten to death during an interrogation. An entire Magadan/Moscow airliner is blown to bits just to kill his wife . . . and what poor Duvakin has set in motion, and from which he would give anything to escape, sucks him back into the skein of intrigue that lies just beyond the edges of everyday life. Like a figure in a mocking, jeering nightmare, it is none other than the wicked Polkovnikov who appears like a genie from Moscow to investigate the cesspool from which Duvakin has clumsily kicked the lid.
Polkovnikov . . . who represents the villainy of Soviet officialdom, who immediately talks Duvakin into impersonating a KGB spy and carrying a gun--both extremely punishable offenses should Polkovnikov turn on him again--for the simple reason that Duvakin cannot refuse. He belongs to the infernal Polkovnikov . . .
But again Duvakin's life is not without its compensations--in this case, one of the more formidable is a lustful doctor who falls in love with him, takes him into her apartment, and makes it clear to him, once at gunpoint, that her intentions, far from fanciful, are both serious and long-term. Olcott gives us a richly detailed gallery of Soviets, ranging from the lethal old woman who cleans the toilets at the airport to a cockeyed old reprobate who systematically has been bribing the powerful for years in order to guarantee the building of a subway in a small city where the ground is frozen solid most of the time.
In the end, "May Day in Magadan" resolves itself in a flurry of perfectly Russian ironies, much as if Olcott's muse is none other than Gogol in his "Dead Souls" period. What makes both of Olcott's novels so enjoyable is a Russianness which is unrelenting, nearly palpable. And in this instance he was created for the world-weary Duvakin a kind of comedy of errors and manners that is just about irresistible. For the American reader, Olcott has put a slight twist on the old aphorism, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Or at least a lot like us.