There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union
The title story in this six-novella collection is contemporary (for publication) - the USSR in the late 1990's. Inspector Lev Chislenko has been sent to investigate the death of a man who fell down a lift shaft. But when he arrives at the building in question he discovers an alcoholic lift operator, an older woman wracked by hysteria, and her savagely protective daughter, all of whom have the same ridiculous story - a man dressed in old-fashioned clothing, was thrust into the lift by another man, and fell through the solid floor, screaming as he fell. Unfortunately this story is confirmed by Comrade Rudakov, an engineer and Party member in good standing, and disastrously his statement is made in front of witnesses. In no time Chislenko is beset by problems on many fronts - the puzzle of the man who wasn't there, Party politics, and an increasingly attractive witness.
This is both an interesting story and a fascinating study of the paranoia, intrigue and machinations of the USSR. I confess I found the later a trifle more interesting than the former, and was scarcely surprised by the twist in the tale, but the characters were interesting and the narrative was smooth and brisk.
Bring Back the Cat!
Joseph Sixsmith, the London-born West Indian detective, has only just (metaphorically) hung his shingle. With only one case under his belt, Joe's keep for more work, but he draws the line at missing moggies, particularly when the owner is so unpleasant. From the beginning Joe is uncomfortable with the odd dynamics within the Ellison family - she does all the talking, he sits quietly reading his paper and wholly ignored, the teen daughter flashes an underage and underdone pair of breasts at him, and the spotty son sulkily slopes off to his room. But Mrs Ellison agrees to his outrageous fee, and he has nothing better to do, and when his initial investigation reveal a number of untold secrets, Joe's curiosity is tweaked.
More atmosphere and character development than mystery, Bring Back the Cat! is interesting enough and quite a change of pace from the first story in the collection.
The Bull Ring
Harry and his best mate, Bert, signed up through a combination of patriotic zeal and the belief that, with conscription around the corner, volunteer soldiers would get some preferential treatments. They had no idea how brutal just getting through basic training would be, particularly for Harry - Pierce, the canary in charge of them seems to have it in for him, bullying and berating Harry every chance he gets. Every time Harry turns around, there Pierce is, telling in his ear and denigrating him. After Bert all but shoots off his own thumb, it gets worse, as Harry's on his own. But perhaps Pierce is more effective than he realises...
More a study of war and character than a true mystery, there are strong streaks of non-graphic horror running through this testing tale. Of the collection it left the strongest resonance, and was very atmospheric.
We are warned in the opening line that nothing is as it seems, in this twisting tale that combines Hill's An Advancement of Learning with a glimpse at film production, tempestuous relationships, treachery, murder and self-deception. To say more would ruin the carefully plotted twists and turns.
This period tale of intrigue and plotting involves sibling and marital relationships, entailed property, and the mislead expectations of several parties. Nobody comes out smelling particularly of roses, and I found keeping track of everyone a little more difficult than it might have been...
"At twelve noon there were three people in that house. By the time the clock struck one, two of them would be dead and the life of the third would have changed for ever."
As this collection goes on each story is successively more slender than the one before, and this is the thinnest in both verbiage and content. I quite liked the idea but was disappointed by the execution. - Alex