Madness Treads Lightly by Polina Dashkova is a Russian mystery where only three people can connect a present-day murderer to a serial killer who, fourteen years ago, terrorized a small Siberian town—and one of them is already dead.
Polina Dashkova, dubbed Russia’s Queen of Crime, first published Madness Treads Lightly in Russian in 1998. This edition was translated by Marian Schwartz, which I found surprising given Dashkova’s work as a translator herself. I’m not entirely sure that the translator served this book well, as Russian naming conventions were preserved, which can be a bit confusing to an American audience and contributed to my inability to become immersed in the story right away. But regardless of that, once I became accustomed, I found the story interesting, if standard, for a thriller.
The novel takes place in two time periods and two locations. Lena Polyanskaya is our protagonist, a young mother living in Moscow in 1996 who edits a prominent magazine and is married to a high-ranking police officer. She soon learns that an old friend of hers, Mitya, has died of suspected suicide, but she finds it all suspicious even though Mitya’s sister, Olga, has accepted it without question. But the further Lena digs, the more she feels that Mitya’s death was no accident and might, in fact, be somehow connected to a string of murders that happened in Siberia in the 1980s.
Flashback to Siberia, 1981, and Venya Volkov, a member of the Young Communists, is assigned to escort Lena, Mitya, and Olga while they travel the Siberian countryside on behalf of Lena’s magazine. Mitya, a young singer/songwriter, performs music while the two women recite fiction and recruit writers. Venya has developed an intense crush on Lena, and she’s often forced into situations that make her extremely uncomfortable but doesn’t resist because she feels that it’s the safer option.
Of course, red flags are popping up all over the place at this behavior, but one wonders if this is the norm for young women in Communist Russia, or if this guy is over the top crazy. And it didn’t stop in the ’80s. He’s carried a torch for her for 14 years, and when he reenters Lena’s life years later, it’s just a creepy and just as intense:
As long as I pretend I’m ready for anything, I’m safe. And so is Liza. But what if he realizes his love is like a bone stuck in my throat? He might even kill me himself. He might.
I have very much simplified a lot of the plot of this novel because it’s incredibly long with a lot of exposition, flashbacks, and flashforwards from multiple points of view—sometimes Lena; sometimes Mitya’s widow, Katya; sometimes Venya; and sometimes Venya’s wife, Regina. And it flashes back and forth between time periods as well. It took a very long time for all of the disparate threads and points of view to come together towards a cohesive plot, but once it did, the pacing picked up, leading towards a not entirely unpredictable conclusion.
The scenery is possibly the most stunning and interesting element of the novel. When someone mentions Siberia, I generally think of snow and frozen tundras, but Dashkova’s descriptions of a deeply forested and frozen land are magical and lend a certain level of grandeur to an otherwise ordinary thriller:
Spring came late to Tobolsk, but was always stormy and swift. The ice broke on the Tobol and the Irtysh majestically. On clear days, sunlight fractured the large, slow-moving ice floes, which splintered in the heavy, dark water, and sometimes a vivid rainbow would shimmer at the cracks. Then came the high waters. The two Siberian rivers, which flowed together in the old town, would leave their banks and, together with the first real May rains, wash away the last remnants of snow. But in the taiga, there could be snow in low-lying areas as late as June.
Overall, this is a fine novel if you’re interested in Russia and the changes that took place in the ’80s and ’90s when the country transitioned from communism to capitalism as well as wonderful descriptions of the land from a native.
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Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.