A young man’s desire to discover his past drives this evocative and mysterious thriller, made all the more persuasive for its bringing to life the fears and paranoia of Soviet Russia in the 1980s. Young Darcy Bright is still haunted by the failings of his alcoholic mother when he receives a phone call from his half-sister, Fin, who has left Melbourne unexpectedly on a commission to paint the industrial landscapes of Moscow.
Darcy shared a memorable childhood with Fin. Both are artists, and both have been shaken by various events that shaped their early years. It comes as no surprise, then, that Darcy, full of bittersweet need and wary of the new disease, accepts Fin’s offer and travels to this cold, wintry city that feels at once weird and great. Only in Moscow does Darcy feels the depth of his foreignness, the absence of language like “dry ice stuck to his tongue,” the euphoric recall of his recent visit to Sydney for New Year’s Eve stealing over him.
While reconnecting with the mercurial Fin, Darcy walks in a local park where he befriends a narrow dog in a quilted tartan blanket and is cruised by a solitary man as Fin’s ghostly words echo in his head: “Be careful, the places you go.” With his curiously accented English and a shadow of a moustache above his sculpted lips, Darcy is seduced by the Cuban dancer Aurelio, who seems so much larger than the life that surrounds him. It is Aurelio who olds the key to so much of what happens to Darcy in the coming pages.
Niggled by the memory of the money belt against him like a strip of swollen skin and the black-and-white photos of the railway station on Prague - the guy in this uniform, down on his knees with his army cap on the cistern - Darcy finds himself caught up on a sudden thread of fear. The threats of a police state hang over him, while the cool, stale taste of Aurelio’s smoky breath offers consolation and his insinuation that there’s nothing at all to worry about. Soon, however, Darcy is caught up in a complex game involving the KGB, his very survival dependent on Aurelio’s kindness and Fin’s loyalties.
Under surveillance and resolutely running through the streets of Moscow, Darcy follows the disparate clues, desperate to find solace at the Australian Embassy. As the action steadily builds, Darcy is propelled through the mine field of Moscow’s back alleys and false identities, the perpetrator at the core of Darcy’s dilemma proving impossible to decipher. While Aurelia declares Moscow to be a place where nothing is legal yet everything is possible, Darcy comes to the realization that it is Fin who is ultimately in trouble with the world.
Stray Dog Winter begins as an intuitive character study and atmospheric exploration of a close sibling relationship, with David Francis’ liquid prose almost enveloping the reader. But soon the plot morphs into something far more sinister, a convoluted espionage thriller whose action culminates against the specter of General Secretary Yuri Andropov’s death, the pageant of his funeral unfurling in real life.
Everywhere he looks, Darcy sees a repressive regime as he tries to sort through the mystery of Fin’s real agenda and the reasons why the enigmatic Aurelio absolutely refuses to return his Australian passport. Meanwhile, the pangs of longing and distrust continue to haunt his relationship with his half-sister, and a love that lies far too close is in danger of being destroyed.
Although the plot is weighed down in the final act, the book’s strength is in its descriptions of Soviet Russia, the bleakness of winter and the fear and the cruelty in a city constantly covered in snow, the stress in dove-grey, a frozen kind of beauty, the slush-covered boulevards where the trolley buses pass. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the other symbols of Soviet domination, the Kremlin and the domes of St. Basil’s, are a constant presence, full of a menacing beauty.
Behind the veil of culture, the curtain behind the curtain, Darcy searches for redemption and a new kind of love along with the scores of men searching for intimacy in the places where it isn’t. Marginalized and isolated, Darcy’s journey eventually becomes a battle for survival, his terror feeding and fueling the needs of double agents and spies, along with Turks, Armenians and Russians in this corrupt and deeply repressive regime that constantly tries to conceal itself from itself.