It’s best to leave your revolutionary fervor behind and just give in to the beautiful and opulent settings that blanket Tasha Alexander’s new mystery, Death in St. Petersburg. Set in that storied city in the early 1900s, before the cataclysm of 1917, Alexander’s novel captures St. Petersburg at the peak of its glitz and aristocratic splendor. The enchanted winter setting benefits from lines here and there from poet and Russian literary genius Alexander Pushkin, as this one that captures the atmosphere: “I love thy winters bleak and harsh; / Thy stirless air fast bound by frosts; / The flight of sledge o'er Neva wide, / That glows the cheeks of maidens gay. / I love the noise and chat of balls; / A banquet free from wife’s control, / Where goblets foam, and bright blue flame / Darts round the brimming punch-bowl’s edge.”
Sleuth Lady Emily, here in her 12th outing in Alexander’s popular series, is in Russia with her debonair and attractive husband, Colin. They investigate the tragic murder of prima ballerina Nemetseva, found outside the Mariinsky Theatre after her premiere performance as Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake.”
The book takes readers behind the scenes with a crash course in ballet, describing the beauty and cruelty of the unforgiving, competitive life of a top-level ballet dancer in Russia’s storied and revered Imperial Ballet.
The book cleverly balances flashbacks with Lady Emily’s current day, presenting the fascinating backstory of young Irusya (Nemetseva) and Katenka, young dancers in the corps de ballet, whose lives become intertwined over the years, right up to the fatal event, as the flashbacks catch up to the present day. Irusya’s brother, Lev, and his revolutionary circle of friends contrast with the aristocrats living sheltered lives in precarious comfort at their soirees and balls, while princes bestow expensive favors on their favored ballerinas, who remain a lower class . . . all setting the stage for events to come.
But it’s St. Petersburg that stars in this show, as we accompany Lady Emily and her husband through a brilliant Russian winter, where horse-drawn sledges draw their muffed and ermine-swathed occupants over the sparkling snows to the hush of a theater at opening; where glittering Fabergé jewels are trinkets for the rich; and where a ghostly ballerina appears in the city, bearing marks of her murder, and then disappears into the snowy landscape.