In an exchange placement with our crime-loving cousins at the Murder Room, Wolfhound Century author Peter Higgins slipped into the world of historical thriller fiction to read Dan Smith’s new paperback Red Winter. This is what he discovered…
A man on horseback emerges from the edge of a dark forest, crosses a shallow icy river and enters a village. The horse is uneasy, the village silent and apparently deserted. No lights. No fires. The rider has a companion: we know this because the rider talks to him occasionally, though the companion never replies. (These opening pages are full of unsettling silences.) Right from the first paragraphs, the strong, dark uncanny atmosphere of Dan Smith’s Red Winter wraps itself around you and never lets up.
Nikolai Levitsky, a deserter from the civil war tearing Russia apart in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution, comes home to find his village abandoned: a brutal atrocity has been committed, but the fate of his wife and children is unclear. Nikolai determines to find what has happened to his family and track down the man responsible. He goes back into the trees on a solitary mission of rescue or revenge, not knowing himself which it is. But as he travels onwards, always going north, he is himself being followed. Hunted.
Red Winter is soaked in the dark, vivid simplicity of traditional Russian folktales: we hear of Koschei the Deathless One; One Eyed Likho; Baba Yaga; vengeful rusalkas. And the story Dan Smith tells, in its starkness and unrelenting focus, takes on the feel of such a tale itself.
There’s a primal mythic sparsity here: endless trees and grassy plains; an armed man on a horse, travelling. You feel that stuff is going on under the surface, a wider story not yet being revealed, but we are always absorbed in the search, the journey, the adventure. The forest and the steppes take on an almost post-apocalyptic quality: we are on the edge of harsh winter; the rivers still run but there is ice forming, and hard frosts come in the night, turning the earth to iron. It’s the kind of land where horses scrape through snow to eat frozen grass and you need an axe to dig a shallow grave. Isolated families live in lonely wooden huts in the forest, built around the great stoves that keep them warm through the winters’ snows.
Gradually, sparingly, Dan Smith widens out the scope of his story: armoured troop trains, Chekists, Bolsheviks and counter-revolutionaries emerge from the trees, as do fragments broken off from armies of various allegiance – Reds, Whites, Blues, Greens – the soldiers lost, wandering. Many have abandoned their uniforms. Others are looking for someone, anyone, to lead them. Some are zealots for one cause or another, and some have turned atavistic, bloody-handed, possessed by the joy of inflicting cruelty.
The particulars and purposes of the historical setting are subtly sketched in, but Dan Smith keeps Red Winter stripped back to the essentials and the story – told in short, concentrated chapters – moves restlessly on. It’s about determination and survival, love and trust, friendship, hatred and revenge, and – perhaps above all – it’s about parents and children in a violent, collapsing world. It’s scary, absorbing and brilliantly done.