Donald James certainly can’t be blamed for lacking ambition. His Monstrum is set in a future Russia where a new party is in power with the promise of change, but people’s loyalties rest uneasy. While this grants enough drama as it is, stirring up this potent setup is a plot about a heinous serial killer who cuts up victims in puzzling ways, a subplot about an underground (literally) sex-cult, and the subversive rebels threatening the new government. Populating this universe is a gallery of colorful characters--an American profiler, an opportunistic police chief, a smitten doctor, a reluctant police force, the elusive monstrum itself, and of course the bumbling cop protagonist. Because of his political connections or despite them, a drunken cop is assigned to catch the serial killer. The doctor and profiler both pine for the cop, insisting on his affections, while the cop yearns for his ex-wife who abandoned him to lead a rebel group in guerilla warfare.
More interested in a failed past than the women he beds, more helpful to a subversive cause than his own principles, the cop sports split loyalties that would make for a great character were the story not told from his point of view. Even a first person narrative could’ve been arresting had the cop ruminated on the turmoil and drama inherent in his life. Even in novels, a passive character is a tough sell unless the character conducts enchanting inner monologues or provides colorful opinions on the surrounding life. Unfortunately for the reader, Constantin Vadim, the cop, is not a thinker. But then, nor is he a doer. Instead, Vadim blindly throws himself into every situation damning the outcome and his fate even further.
Since the reader is stuck with the cop, a dreary fatalistic sense of life sets in early like a hangover haze. The pacing is slow for nearly half of the novel as demands from many fronts overwhelm Vadim. The reader feels trapped and helpless as the blundering cop plods on without direction. After chasing red herrings and downing several gallons of Vodka through some ill-advised trysts, Vadim happens upon some clues. These are clues that an average detective would’ve found upon reading the case files of the victims. Meanwhile, fresh corpses pile up all around Vadim. The protagonist is a reactor to the plot, not it’s propeller. So, until the very end the story lumbers on aided only by secondary characters.
Monstrum is a distracted novel whose rich political underpinnings struggle for attention with a sensational whodunit story set in the future. A political novel would actually have been better served in the author’s hands for he’s certainly informed about Russia and its history. Were the intention to make the future a scary place unlike any before, the author fails there too. The new Russia is a Dickensian place and resembles the hopelessness and corruption of the past. Characters sprout cynicism like time-hardened prisoners. Only in historical details of Russia and rich character histories does the novel show its strength.
At least the serial killer investigation should have offered some thrills. There’s not a shred of tactic or cunning in the way suspects are formed or questioned. The police corruption, inept judicial process, the pervading paranoia are all tired retreads of cold war novels. One plot segment involves a character’s stint as a double for the new political leader, a scenario that exists only to serve as convenient plot resolution at the end. Besides, there are lost characters resurfacing, alliances breaking and forming all the time between characters to keep the reader suspicious about everyone’s motives. There are some plot points that seem so obvious that being drunk is Vadim’s only excuse for going along like he does. At novel’s end, I just felt enervated and accomplished; a suitable effect after an important non-fictional tome, not a dismissive novel.