A Morbid Habit (Catherine Berlin #3)
Penguin Books Aus
Copy courtesy of the publisher
Catherine Berlin is out of a job. She had been taking casual shifts for a security company but after noticing something amiss on a monitor and being told to turn a blind eye, Catherine knows that’s not really the job she wants to be doing. She knows something odd is going on and so she mentions it casually to a journalist friend of hers. Maybe he can do a bit of digging and find out what’s going on for her.
Then an old friend offers her a job, doing an investigation. The fee will be very generous but the only downside is that Catherine must travel to Russia to investigate the dealings of an entrepreneur who wants to invest in Britain. It’s supposed to be very quick and very simple, just a couple of days in the country over the period of Christmas.
However it turns out to be anything but. Trouble finds her from almost the time she steps foot into the airport in Moscow. The translator who meets her is very unorthodox, she finds herself tossed out of her hotel and her passport and all important medication are confiscated by the Russian police. Without her passport, she can’t leave the country and it seems like for some reason, Catherine Berlin has attracted a lot of attention from the Russian authority figures. The only person who appears able to help her, albeit unwillingly is her interpreter, a 70-something former Brit named Charlie. Then Catherine realises that Charlie is part of what is going on, or at least knows a lot more than she is letting on. And now Catherine is determined to find out the truth about what is happening and why she’s been mistaken for a spy. And she’s not going to let up, even though it just might kill her.
I’ve read both of the previous Catherine Berlin novels and really enjoyed them but this one excited me even more because I really love books that are set in Russia, whether it be historical fiction or present day. So the idea of Berlin going to Russia was definitely appealing, especially as you could just tell there was so much potential for things to go wrong. For starters, Berlin is a heroin addict who has managed her addiction for the past thirty years with carefully controlled doses of prescription drugs. Given that her drugs are confiscated barely hours after she arrives, along with her passport, you already know that things are going to get extremely difficult for Berlin. She can’t escape, because even though she approaches the Embassy for a new passport, the fact that hers is being held as she’s a ‘person of interest’ basically means they can’t help her. She’s in a foreign country where she doesn’t know where to go to get a hit for her addiction and this ‘simple job’ she was supposed to be doing becomes more and more complicated with every passing minute. She’s also pretty sure that she’s being followed and watched but she doesn’t know why.
This isn’t a particularly long book, so the setting doesn’t play as large a role as I had hoped. It’s winter, Christmas-time in Britain (although not celebrated in Russia) and Berlin is forced to move accommodation and her new digs aren’t really luxurious so it’s extremely cold but…not really as cold as I expected. She seems to make do relatively easily. I’d have liked a bit more of a description of the surrounds, to really immerse myself in the Russian experience but apart from a few relatively vague observations, Berlin could basically be anywhere that it’s really cold. She is rather busy though, suffering from withdrawals from her drug and also trying to figure out just what the heck is going on and how she can get her passport back and get the heck out of there, so there’s not a lot of time for sightseeing and wandering around. However Hauxwell does nail that instability, the uncertainty of being a foreigner in Russia and one that’s under suspicion. Berlin is rendered extremely vulnerable in the country within hours, her freedom taken away from her. In Russia you need your passport/visa to check into a hotel so once that is taken from her, she has limited options of where she can stay and what she can do. Her Embassy is powerless to really assist her. In the end it is basically up to Berlin to figure out what is going on and also, how she can get herself out of Russia.
There’s no denying that Berlin is extremely smart and she’s very good at taking clues and using them to put a larger picture together. However Berlin never really displays much in the way of emotions and feelings – even when she’s trapped in a foreign country without her drugs and passport, even when people are trying to kill her or have nearly killed her. She has an iciness to her, a real impenetrable barrier constructed around her and at times, it makes it really hard to become invested in her predicament. It’s almost like if she doesn’t care that much, why should I? Maybe she’s just not very good at showing that she cares about things but she really does take everything that happens in a remarkably stoic kind of way. She has an amazing resilience – given what has happened to her in the previous couple of books, it’s honestly incredible that she’s still upright and functioning. Maybe it’s the dependence on drugs that both keeps her going and is why she keeps going. She needs money to buy her fixes and maybe the drugs keep her on a pretty even keel. She does display flashes of sympathy but it was almost a resigned sort of sympathy, like she couldn’t get out of the situation unless she was forced to accept the necessity of sympathy. However I liked the way that everything played out and the smarts Berlin used in order to make the best of her situation and use what she knew to get herself to what resembled safety for her.
Berlin continues to be a bit of a puzzle and an enigma but one I’m happy to enjoy. I do wonder what the next book brings for her in regards to her drug addiction after she was forced to go through withdrawal in this book. There are a few directions that the character can be taken in and I’ll be interested to see which one is chosen.
Book #122 of 2014
A Morbid Habit is book #45 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014