Written by AD Miller — A snowdrop is a lovely flower, but as this book explains in its first few pages, it’s also the Russian vernacular for a dead body that turns up when the snow melts. Each spring, Moscow’s icy drifts subside, and the authorities find all the drunks, vagrants and murder victims who went missing in the frozen months. Poetic expressions like this, wrapped in dry irony, occur throughout AD Miller’s debut novel. He is a confident writer, his prose is like silk, and Snowdrops is on the shortlist for both the Man Booker Prize and the CWA Golden Dagger this year.
Formerly an Economist correspondent covering Russia, Miller clearly knows the country and its capital very well. This book is written from the perspective of its protagonist Nicholas Platt – it’s a confession to his girlfriend about what he got up to in Russia. He starts off a lonely lawyer representing banks lending cash to Russian enterprises. Platt’s job is to help make sure the borrowers are kosher which, with Russia’s organised crime, government graft and corporate corruption, is no mean feat.
But his interactions with colleagues, businessmen and outright gangsters who want foreign cash to build oil pumping platforms are all in the background. Nick Platt is a needy man and falls for a young Russian beauty called Masha whom he bumps into on the Moscow Metro. He spends much of his time with Masha, her sister Katya, and their elderly aunt. This lady is called by her full name, Tatiana Vladimirovna, throughout the book. She’s hoping to move out of an impressive apartment in central Moscow to a flat on the outskirts, where she can see the trees.
Masha and Katya get Kolya – their pet name for Platt – all wrapped up in the business of helping the old lady gather all the papers required to trade her Soviet era abode for the new one. He wines and dines the girls and receives their favours in return, confessing to plenty of other naughtiness as he outlines his various shortcomings along the way. As witty as his tale is in the telling, Platt is a very weak man whose moral compass is always pointing towards the most pleasure, or the easiest exit. The ideal person to suck into a scam.
Other critics have likened AD Miller’s writing to that of Graham Greene, and in terms of characterisation this is does not overstate his skill. He also handles intimacy between the characters extremely well – whether its Platt’s softer moments with Masha, or when a Cossack gangster roughly warns him not all Russian women are what they seem. Miller’s protagonist describes contemporary Russia as intricately as Graham Green’s character Thomas Fowler detailed 1950s Indochina in The Quiet American.
However, that silky prose flatters to deceive. Underneath it all the story is unmoving and it never feels as though much is happening, or is ever going to happen. Nicholas Platt does nothing other than what he’s told to both in personal life and business. The book snakes along through his Moscow winter with the two women, and ends leaving you thinking, ‘Oh’. If you want beautiful writing, Snowdrops fits the bill. But if you want passion, urgency, action and moral friction – all of which Graham Greene did excellently – then look elsewhere. Please, please, please tell if I’ve missed something (comment below), but it’s really hard to see why Snowdrops is up for one of the biggest prizes in crime fiction.
CFL Rating: 2 Stars