A suspenseful new murder mystery set in a crumbling monastery–turned–Soviet prison in the early twentieth century.
In a former monastery on an island in the White Sea, now taken over by the Bolsheviks, young mathematician Tolya Bogomolov is serving a three-year sentence, watched over by a skeleton crew of secret policemen. Some prisoners are consigned to forced labor while others sit at comfortable desks. So Tolya has been cultivating an acquaintance with Gennady Antonov that he hopes will lead to a better work assignment—maybe even a little more bread in his ration—especially now, with the brutal winter fast approaching.
Gennady holds a privileged position restoring the monks’ seized collection of icons. But when his body is discovered floating frozen in the bay, Tolya’s connection with him is no longer advantageous—it’s downright dangerous.
At first, the authorities question Tolya. But he’s mystified when they assign him to assist the elderly detective investigating the case. While he’d rather find the real killer than have the murder pinned on him, digging into Gennady’s secrets will turn up mysteries that could turn Tolya into the next victim . . .
The discovery of a body propels May's richly evocative, if flawed, first novel. One morning in 1926, the deceased, Gennady Antonov, a prisoner in a Soviet detention camp located on a desolate island in the White Sea, is found floating in the icy waters off the island. The authorities choose another prisoner, Tolya Bogomolov, a 20-year-old mathematician serving a three-year term "for reactionary political association," to assist in the investigation. What follows is a gripping, if lumbering, look at the desperation and grimness of prison life under early Chekist rule. Bogomolov discovers that Antonov, who worked in the museum formerly occupied by monks on the island, was tied to several suspicious recent events: the theft of gold leaf, rumors of an escape plot, and the disappearance of 38 religious icons from the museum. A flabby middle section slows the action, but this thriller deserves high marks for the captivating tone of the writing and attention to historical detail about a prison that served as a key link in the gulag chain. Readers will be curious to see what May does next.