As the cold nights of winter close in, Sam Eastland’s “Red Icon” is one of the best thrillers a fan can pick up from the bedside table. Comforter drawn up, the reader follows Inspector Pekkala, “the Emerald Eye,” on his sixth case. It’s a sweeping yarn that spans two world wars, traveling from dark alleyways in Petrograd to frozen lakes in Siberia; from the summer estate of the Romanovs to grim Karaganda Prison.
Eastland, the pen name of novelist and memoirist Paul Watkins, centers his haunting tale on a painting called “The Shepherd,” the Red icon. Painted by an unknown Constantinople artist sometime during the 11th century, the picture depicts a white-robed man standing by a lake. The painting is stolen, then recovered and then allegedly destroyed. (Readers of a certain age will recall a similarly engrossing novel, Thomas B. Costain’s “The Silver Chalice,” which follows the fate of the cup Christ drank from at the Last Supper.)
Some think “The Shepherd” possesses extraordinary powers. In particular, Czar Nicholas II believes that “for the faithful of [Russia], that icon represents the surest guarantee that God is on our side.”
And so, with Russia at war with Germany in 1915, the czar fears his wife has made a grave mistake by insisting that the painting be entrusted to the care of Grigori Rasputin. “If word gets out that Grigori has taken possession of The Shepherd,” the czar says to Pekkala, his personal investigator, “those whose faith has already been shaken by recent setbacks on the battlefield will fasten on it as the reason for every misfortune we have suffered in this war.”
When the czar sends Pekkala to dissuade Rasputin from harboring the icon, the attempt fails, and, as the czar feared, the painting is soon stolen. Pekkala’s mission turns perilous. The inspector suspects the wily Rasputin is behind an attack by a “lumbering giant” who, in a breathtaking chase scene, pursues Pekkala down a dark alley, slashing his face with “a long, strange knife.” Soon, Pekkala becomes an anguished man, afraid that “there is no hiding place deep enough inside the catacombs of his brain where he can hide the memories. They will always find their way out, baying like wolves in the black tunnels of his mind.”
Thirty years later, Russia again wars with Germany, and Pekkala now works as Joseph Stalin’s investigator. Stalin summons the inspector and his assistant to his office and hands them a bundle that contains “The Shepherd.” The icon, it seems, was not destroyed, but hidden in a coffin in the basement of a church in Germany. Stalin doesn’t think much of the painting (“What is that man doing, standing around in a nightshirt?” he growls.) but the dictator is aware of the icon’s power upon his followers, whose faith he needs as Russia makes its final push into Berlin. Stalin orders Pekkala to uncover the story of what happened to “The Shepherd” since it disappeared, lest “some unspeakable misfortune” transform the representation of “a miracle” into “an omen.”
Pekkala’s investigation is far-reaching. He uncovers Germany’s plans for chemical warfare and the bizarre castration rites of a sect known as the Skoptsy. There follows, as well, a devastating moment involving a prison guard, a vivid depiction of Mongolian cavalrymen trying to catch salmon with their hands and a flashback involving a gas attack in 1918 near Ypres that chokes one Corporal Adolf Hitler.
At times, it seems Eastland never met a subplot, location detail or minor character he could resist pursuing. But the novel’s canvas, a cyclorama of vivid scenes shot through with tension and drama, holds the reader. The author’s descriptions — sharp, palpable and distinctive — are to savor. Consider, for example, Pekkala’s first appearance in the tale:
“Inspector Pekkala felt a drop of sweat moving slowly down his neck. It meandered along the trench of his spine, pausing at the knot of each vertebra before continuing its journey. . . . He shrank away from it inside his coat, as if, by some contortion of his body, he might separate his flesh from any contact with his clothes.”
Eastland ties his epic together in final moments that are suspenseful, surprising and satisfying, though the power of its eponymous icon remains uncertain. Are icons like “The Shepherd” simply useful ways to engage the support of the masses, as Stalin argues? Or do they move and affect believers with godly force, as the czar believes? Readers are left to ponder this theme of faith vs. skepticism as they turn out the bedside lamp.
Gerald Bartell is a freelance arts and travel writer who lives in Manhattan.
By Sam Eastland
Opus. 346 pp. $28.95