Serving time in the mid-1920s in the notorious Solovetsky prison labor camp, located on an island that used to be a monastery, a 20-year-old student is pressed to help investigate the murder of a fellow prisoner with whom he was acquainted.
The student, Anatoly "Tolya" Bogomolov, was convicted of possessing forbidden books. The dead man, Gennady Antonov, found floating in the bay, had been in charge of restoring prized icons in the former monastery building. Tolya is drawn to the investigation, which requires him to deal with fussy, aging detective Petrovich, for two reasons: The job will lighten his labor in the camp and improve his "accommodations," and he is a fan of forensic crime novels featuring such sleuths as Sherlock Holmes, Nick Carter, and Nat Pinkerton. But with a real killer on the loose, Tolya discovers the folly of "modeling [himself] on literary detectives." At the risk of becoming the next victim, and upsetting the authorities, he must get close to a female prisoner with whom Antonov had an affair; uncover the significance of the icons, which were in the possession of monks when the monastery occupied the space; and uncover a secret conspiracy involving White Army officers. Tolya's account, which stretches into the 1930s and '40s, is written in the form of a detective novel. By turns clever and revealing, May's novel keeps the brutality largely in the background while following Tolya's more intellectual interests. The narrative can get dry, but this is a fine debut.
A brainy if sometimes saggy novel that presents a different spin on the prison-camp novel.