Review: The Case of the General's Thumb

It's 1997, and a retired general has risen up into the sky over Kiev, hanging by the neck from a huge Coca-Cola balloon. The corpse mysteriously vanishes from the forensics lab, only to reappear--missing the right thumb. Though the murder of this important government official warrants a full team of investigators, it's given to the tiny office of Major Ratko, and it's the first murder case ever assigned to young Viktor Slutsky, a mere lieutenant whose usual case load consists of petty street crimes. The narrative flips back and forth between Viktor and Nik Tsensky, a young interpreter trying to earn enough money for his wife and son to join him in Kiev. Nik is hired by a mysterious old colonel to rescue a man from an arranged fake attempt on his life--a man disconcertingly dressed just like Nik.

The bodies pile up rapidly, one of them folded into the boot of Viktor's car. No sooner does Andrei Kurkov introduce a slew of secondary characters with complex Russian names before their corpses are discovered. Both protagonists receive mysterious orders over the telephone as the plot thickens, and everyone seems to know more about what's happening in The Case of the General's Thumb than the hapless pair (and the reader). The galloping pace takes a new turn every couple pages, and sheer forward momentum carries the narrative over some rather complex intricacies of spies and counterspies. One of the young heroes is hit by a lorry; the other nearly dies from an overdose of diarrhea tablets--and they're the lucky ones.

What does the general's severed thumb have to do with all this? You won't find out till the very end. For Kurkov, the ending is much less important than the fun of working his way through a world of deaf blondes driving hearses and backfiring revolvers, where bugs are planted in the walls and security cameras trained on the doors. It's a breathless dash through labyrinthine intrigues and cover-ups concealing cover-ups, where helpless puppets jerk to the pull of strings being operated by other puppets. Though the story moves much too swiftly for detailed characterization, Kurkov employs a subtle magic that pulls you in until, at one fateful moment, you realize you're actually starting to care about these helpless, violent men trapped by economic circumstances into a grim, backstabbing dance of death. --Nick DiMartino

Shelf Talker: A frenetically paced international crime novel with a touch of Russian surrealism about a military general hung from a Coca-Cola balloon and the corpse-strewn cover-up that follows.


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