Barry Maitland – The Russian Wife

Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2021
Cover design Nada Backovic

I’m coming late to the David Brock and Kathy Kolla party, a fact I deeply regret. I hope to make amends by getting my hands on as much of Barry Maitland’s back catalogue as possible.

The Russian Wife is a cracking crime read, a suave amalgam of elegant writing, fast flowing action and pleasingly complex characters. I was immediately wedded to the welfare of our leads, despite only just now meeting them, 27 years into their on-page careers.

Barbie talks to Barry Maitland about The Russian Wife

 Two plots are running contiguously in this book, one coming to its satisfactory end earlier in the story and the other powering on till the end. Whilst David Brock’s story starts as a job for the fraud squad where he has unwillingly been placed, it moves quickly into his comfort zone of murder.

Kathy Kolla meanwhile brings her story to the table at one the regular lunch meetings she has with her old colleagues David Brock and Bren Gurney. All are detective chief inspectors in the Met. Apparently flippantly, Brock solves Kathy’s case in the first few pages of the book, but the investigation and proving of it is where the interest lies. There is a heady mix of domestic violence, deception, treachery and multiple murders to negotiate as Kathy’s professional career is put under threat by a formidable opponent.

Meanwhile, things have gone pear shaped for Brock when Nadya Babington, the Russian wife of a wealthy art collector (Julian Babington) complains of being threatened with blackmail via email, but refuses to hand over her computer to the investigating team and then turns up dead in a marshland pond in the Thames Estuary.

Suicide is suspected, but Brock doesn’t buy it. When a young man, a friend of Nadya’s wayward son, is shortly afterwards found hanging in a nearby farm building, things seem to have taken a decidedly dark turn and double murder is more likely than double suicide.

Beneath the swirling tide of nefarious deeds, there is also a more esoteric story, centred on the oeuvre of early twentieth century German artist Kurt Schwetters.  Brock received a gift of one of Schwetters’ famous collages from a murderer he arrested several books back and he finds another of these works hanging in the home of Julian Babington. The art fraud plot thickens with the introduction of Russian gangsters and questionable provenances.

To say more will spoil a masterfully drawn, cleverly interwoven plot and so I will leave it there for the reader to pick up. The matter of characterisation and how the several themes and motifs arise from this, however, will bear a little more comment.

The idea of love permeates all parts of this book and every player – domesticity and the search for a quiet life backs up against illicit affairs, violence towards women and others and the need to resolve issues of duty and justice, to define what criminality is and dig into the classic motivations of money, sex and ego. The actors major and minor all ring true as they confront these various demons.

This is a very fine piece of crime fiction penned by an author at the top of this game. Story meets style here, and both clamour for our attention. The ending leaves us with the hope that Brock has more crime solving in him and that his partnership with Kathy Kolla still has a course or two to run. Thank you, crime fiction gods.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy and to Barry Maitland for a relaxed and interesting chat about this work and other twists of life. I feel the privilege of this.