According to some reviews I’ve seen, Wolfhound Century (Orbit, 2013) by Peter Higgins is pretty much the best thing since black bread and pickled herring. The level of enthusiasm has actually been quite off-putting. I tend to be immediately suspicious of any novel that generates a lot of word-of-mouth buzz on publication, for the simple reason that all too often the text in question turns out to be not that remarkable after all when considered at a more thoughtful distance. And thus it proves with Wolfshound Century. This is not to say it is a bad novel, but it is a novel with problems, not the least of which is that it is actually only half a novel with problems, ending as abruptly as it does.
One might initially cast Wolfhound Century as yet one more fantasy-police procedural hybrid, perhaps a pale follower of Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, with Inspector Vissarion Lom as the Arkady Renko stand-in. The police procedural element seems so well-worn these days I find it hard to get enthused about such things any more. Lom seems to fit the bill as a plain-speaking type whose bluntness has got him into trouble and seen him denied promotion. There is the added frisson that he is working within a deeply oppressive system that he’s clearly not entirely happy about but one might say he does his best to do his job without compromising his integrity more than he has to. But then, so do other detectives.
If the narrative mechanism doesn’t excite, then what about the setting? Higgins’ novel is set what initially appears to be Fictional Russia, that is, a Russia that is familiar to me from portrayals in film and novel. It seems to tick the boxes one might expect: oppressive state system, secret police, political opposition suppressed, informers, an assortment of radical and reactionary groups vying for supremacy, poor food, everyone drowning their sorrows. In all, it’s reductively grim-grey, with possibly extra added cliché.
Except, as the reader gradually comes to realise – and the realisation is painfully gradual, thanks to the narrative’s pacing – this is not Fictional Russia, but something else, perhaps Alternative Russia. My knowledge of Russian history is not sufficient to tell how closelyWolfhound Century nudges up against an historical narrative that we are familiar with although I know enough to see echoes and resonances on occasion. Then again, I wonder if this matters, given that the novel is, if anywhere, set in Liminal Russia, a place that hovers on the brink of existence. Late in the novel, two of the major characters find themselves in the marshes beyond the city of Mirgorod:
This was a threshold country, neither solid ground nor water but something liminal and in between. The air was filled with a beautiful misty brightness under a lid of low cloud. There was no sun: it was as if the wet land and the shallow stretches of water were themselves luminous. The air smelled of damp earth and sea, salt and wood ash and fallen leaves (255).
It’s a lovely description, a beautiful piece of observation, and it also gives a very strong hint as to what is really important in this novel. In fact, the clues are there from the beginning if we did but know how to read them.
The novel begins with a stake-out. Lom and his colleague, Ziller, are acting on a tip-off, waiting for a hand-over. When it comes, it’s not what we might expect: a small cloth bag. Inside ‘[t]here was nothing but a mess of broken twigs and crushed berries and clumps of some sticky yellowish substance that might have been wax. It had a sweet, heavy, resinous perfume’ (6). We should already be alert for difference, thanks to the passing casual references to ‘the giants’; they simply walk through the foreground of the scene, leading carts and horses, a natural part of the landscape of Podchornok, clearly, but what are they? Simply part of the story.
Suddenly, Lom finds himself summoned to Mirgorod by Under Secretary Krogh, who apparently has a job for him. what Krogh might want with a provincial investigator is anyone’s guess. It’s only during the interminable train journey to Mirgorod that we learn what is unusual about Lom, namely that he carries a sliver of angel flesh embedded in his forehead, a sight that terrifies even the most brutal of gendarmes. Its function, though, remains mysterious at this point, as indeed do the angels. Even once Lom arrives in Mirgorod, the story seems set to follow its inevitably banal course as he is asked to track down an elusive agent provocateur, Kantor, only to find his way blocked by other departments. Clearly, there are wheels within wheels though Lom is beginning to form a suspicion as to what is going on.
And it is at this point that the story suddenly takes off. In very short order, such stability as Lom’s prior existence possessed is stripped away, an old friend is horribly murdered, and Lom, his angel flesh removed during torture, is on the run, accompanied by Maroussia Shaumian, a young woman who believes that Kantor is her father. We’ve long since left Fictional Russia, the world of detectives and torturers, for Liminal Russia, a world where the forest is at war with the city.
Suddenly, we begin to wonder a little more about Lom, who comes from Podchornok, ‘the last town before the forest began’ (19), the man who loves the ‘proper forest. Dark. Mossy. Thick.’ (19). The man who distinguishes between ‘forest rain’, redolent with the scents of the land and the forest, and ‘steppes rain’, ‘sharp and cold’ which seems to hint at the straight edges of the built. Lom’s is a primeval landscape, and it would seem that Lom is indeed fitted to deal with something primeval, certainly something older than the city, something with a raw, elemental power that the city’s reasoned response is unable to counter. Critcally, Lom is not afraid of the countryside
Lom and Vishnik, Mirgorod’s official historian, have both witnessed strange visions in the city, which Vishnik believes are alternative versions of the future city vying for supremacy. Vishnik believes the visions are caused by an angel which lies out in the forest, alive despite falling from the sky. Obviously, other angels have fallen in the past but have died. Kantor and Chazia, head of the secret police, are desperate to gain custody of the angel. Others, people from the forest, are determined that this angel should die. They are concerned about the whereabouts of something they call the Pallandore, which will help with this. The angel, though, is also aware that something is going on and seems to be attempting to counter the threat from the forest.
Lom, seemingly protected by water, and Maroussia, a woman with forest connections, are obviously destined to act against the angel, but before we can find out what is likely to happen, the novel stops, almost dead in its tracks. One assumes there is a sequel, if only because I cannot believe the novelist went to so much trouble only to grind to a halt, the story half told. It is possible, I suppose, that we could read this ending as open, ambiguous, left to the imagination, but it feels to me that there is more to come. This raises more questions. If, as I suspect, this is one manuscript chopped in two, one wonders why this decision was made when, to my eye at least, it might have been more productive to excise several chapters from the beginning of the novel. While they set the scene they also slow the pace of the novel. Little happens until Lom begins to experience his visions of the diverging futures of Mirgorod and the world of the forest begins to impinge on the city. Lom as a police officer is a distraction from Lom caught up in a confrontation between the intuitive magic of the forest and the rational power of the angel. That’s where the interesting story is.
So, I am left with a dilemma here. I have what seems to be half a novel, half of which is amazingly good stuff, half of which is rather ordinary. How to pass a judgement on it? I’m not actually sure I can, given I feel it is so incomplete. I can’t find it in me to forgive the novel’s faults just because the good parts are so good. But in the engagement between the different forms of power is so interesting it is worth putting up with the banalities and longueurs, and to accept that one is going to have to read the sequel.