So fluent, so textured is Jonathan Miles’s ease with prose and argument that his vivid dissection of 300 years of St Petersburg’s history should be devoured in captive sittings.
The cultural, and sometime political, capital of Russia, St Petersburg, built on a drained swamp by pitiless and homicidal tsar Peter the Great, mixes romantic fancy with vile reality. Cultural historian Miles skilfully forges and exposes the tangled character of what he calls this “absurd” city in which “dreams are big and information and truth are in short supply”.
Investigating the artistic life of St Petersburg, he also explores the melodrama and blood on the streets and the effects of continuing political disarray and corruption on ordinary people. This is a storyteller entranced with his subject, who makes its brilliant portrayal look deliriously easy.
• St Petersburg: Three Centuries of Murderous Desire by Jonathan Miles is published by Hutchinson (£25). To order a copy for £21.25 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99