City of Ghosts by Ben Creed (published with Welbeck Publishing) is a tense, somber and truly gripping debut historical novel. It is the first book in a trilogy from new writing duo Chris Rickaby and Barney Thompson, writing under the pseudonym Ben Creed. It is described as ‘an intelligent and atmospheric historical crime – perfect for readers of Phillip Kerr, Joseph Kanon and Tom Rob Smith (Child 44)’.
City of Ghosts is set in 1951 with the memories of the horrors of the Siege of Leningrad very much to the forefront and central to this macabre tale. The Siege of Leningrad, also known as the 900-day siege, was one of the most heinous events of the Second World War that took place from September 8, 1941 to January 27, 1944. During this time an estimated 900,000 civilians lost there lives, while succumbing to the most horrendous death, from starvation, illness or the bombardment of German bombings. It is extremely difficult to contemplate the pure terror of a decimated population who were driven to eating anything and everything to survive another day, with cases of cannibalism unfortunately reported. Survivors endured the most grueling experience with the memories to remain forever ingrained and there for future generations to remember.
In City of Ghosts, the Siege of Leningrad underpins the tale and it is a story based around Revol Rossel. Rossel is now a member of the state militia. He has buried many secrets of his past to stay alive while carrying out his investigative work under mandatory instruction from the powers that be. The discovery of five mutilated corpses on a railway line in the dead of a Russian winter becomes the focus of Rossel’s attention. Rattled and very perplexed with this gruesome scene, Rossel sets out to uncover the truth.
I read a lot of historical fiction. It is a genre that I get so much out of and yet I continue to be completely appalled by events that took place in our past. Ben Creed has created a stirring, very shocking and completely enthralling read that had me catching my breath as I turned the pages at speed. The character descriptions, the sense of time and place and the use of factual events and people all blend to create this incredible tale.
As Rossel begins his investigation, the past intertwines with the present day (1951) and Rossel finds himself drawn back into a world he had been forced to leave many years previously. Rossel had been a renowned musician, a violinist with a glittering career ahead but, after he and his family fell foul of the establishment, his career trajectory was forever altered. As Rossel delves deep into uncovering the identities of these now disfigured bodies, he is drawn back into the classical world of the Kirov Theatre. The level of research undertaken is clearly evident throughout with the inclusion of legendary icons really adding to the authenticity of this mind-blowing tale.
In the summer of 1942 conductor, Karl Eliasberg, received instructions to rehearse Shostakovich’s Symphony №7 in Leningrad. It was to be broadcast across the city to show the German forces that Russia would not capitulate to the invaders. Recruiting a raggle-taggle collection of musicians and, against all the odds, Eliasberg fulfilled this directive. His orchestra was starved but he mobilised them through fear and meagre food distributions. Shostakovich’s Symphony №7 , at over an hour long, was played and projected out over the streets of Leningrad on August 9, 1942.
One half of Ben Creed, Barney Thompson, studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory and his passion for music spills out over the pages and chapters of City of Ghosts. With flamboyant characters and artistic temperaments the reader is treated to a fascinating insight to those dark yet really incredible months. As I write this I am listening to Shostakovich’s Symphony №7 and every part of my being is trying to imagine and comprehend the terror of those years and the bravery of these individuals who brought every last morsel of energy to their instruments.
Rossel has to deal with many enemies in his search for the truth, one that brings him under the radar of the Kremlin itself. He is such an intriguing and challenging main protagonist. Secretive, fearless, rash, resolute but ultimately extremely courageous. He keeps his cards very close to his chest as he strives to protect himself from other powers who would wish to silence him. Faced with his personal demons and memories of a past he had left behind, Rossel’s strength of both body and mind is put to the test.
City of Ghosts is an intricate, addictive, mesmerising and gripping read. Ben Creed has created an incredible piece of historical fiction against such an atmospheric backdrop. The bleakness chilled me to the core. This is a first-class read, one that I highly recommend to all. My congratulations to Chris Rickaby and Barney Thompson. Now I just have to patiently wait for the second book!
(c) Swirl and Thread
Order your copy online here.