Monday, December 19, 2011

Petrograd by Philip Gelatt and Tyler Crook

Petrograd is the untold tale of the conspiracy behind the murder of Grigori Rasputin. The story follows Cleary, a reluctant British spy who finds himself tasked with the most difficult assignment of his career: orchestrate the death of the mad monk. To accomplish this almost impossible mission, he’ll have to negotiate dangerous ties with the secret police, navigate the halls of power, and tangle with dangerous radicals. And, as the city explodes in the turmoil of revolution, he’ll find that it is his own life on the line.
Petrograd was billed as a tense, historical spy thriller and it delivers on the history and tension.(One moment of menace, where the Okhrana  leader casually mentions the impolitic behavior of being a Jew, made my heart stop.)  Don’t think of Cleary as James Bond, however. He’s more of an Everyman and far more interesting because of it, in my opinion. The personal tension of Cleary trying to decide who he is – S.I.S. spy, Soviet sympathizer, or Irish national without a home – is utterly compelling. Then Gelatt and Crook set it in the midst of a bungled plan to murder someone who has already survived multiple assassination attempts.
 Cleary goes throughout the story aware that he’s in an impossible situation, likely to be murdered for a cause he does not believe in and for people he doesn’t care about with only one exception. He must betray that person’s trust for the sake of his job and regain that trust for himself.
Petrograd is a graphic novel, which basically means the individual comic books that make up the story were combined into “chapters” and placed within a hardback novel cover. The art is beautifully evocative of both the era and the sensations of poverty and paranoia. However, it was a little difficult to get into the first chapter. I believe it’s because the entire novel is done in three colors, which gives it a faded, sepia toned-feel. That’s perfect for the time setting, but readers may struggle to identify individual characters without the aid of additional colors suggesting the person in that color is Cleary’s boss, etc. I urge you to read past that first chapter, because many of the additional, problematic characters disappear, then the story moves fast, and is delightful in a way that leaves you breathless and wanting to more.