county town of Dudary in Siberia. 20-ies. The narrative is conducted on behalf of the participant of the described events, which he recalls many years later.
The author of the narrative, who has never been named after the novel (hereinafter referred to as the Author), works in the criminal investigation department along with his friend Veniamin Malyshev, whose position is an assistant to the head of the secret-operative part. Both of them are very young – they are not yet twenty years old. The main task of the criminal investigation at the time described – after the end of the civil war – is to clear the Dudarinsky district from bandits hiding in the taiga. Bandits kill rural activists, attack cooperatives, try to recruit as many accomplices in their ranks.
In Dudary comes his own correspondent of the provincial newspaper, Yakov Uzelkov, writing under the pseudonym Yakuz, a young man of about seventeen or nineteen. On Venka Malyshev and his friend Yakuz makes the impression of an educated man, since he very much likes to use tricky words in a speech, for example: patron, exaltation, pessimism, familiarity, etc., but he did not like his friends at once, but his correspondence, devoted to the everyday life of criminal investigation and written with an excessively ornate syllable, they find not true.
Criminal investigation officers conduct an operation to neutralize Ataman Klochkov’s gang. During the operation, Venka was injured. Klochkov and several members of the gang were killed, and the rest were arrested. Venka interrogates one of the arrested – Lazar Baukin, and comes to the conclusion that Baukin, a hunter and smolokur, got to the bandits by accident. During the interrogations, Venka talks with Baukin for a long time, learns the details of his life and clearly sympathizes with this arrested bandit, who also admitted that it was he who injured Venka. Soon Lazar and two other arrested people escape from custody. Venka is stunned by the escape of his ward.
In the grocery store, located near the criminal investigation, there is a pretty young cashier, who is very fond of both friends, but they are timid and do not dare to get acquainted with her. Soon, from Uzelkov, they find out that her name is Yulia Maltseva and he knows her – goes to visit her, they talk, discuss the books they read. Friends, envious of Uzelkov’s education, are enrolled in the library and, despite the lack of time, read a lot. Soon, from a familiar librarian, they learn that all of... Uzelkov’s education has been drawn from the encyclopedia of Brockhaus and Efron.
Meanwhile, in the remote area of Dudara County, Voevodsky corner, the gang of Constantine Vorontsov – “the emperor of the whole taiga”, as he calls himself, is being declared. And the capture of the elusive Bones Vorontsov becomes the most important problem for criminal investigation. Venka Malyshev goes to Voevodsky corner, but nobody knows how he deals there, not even his best friend.
In the absence of Venka, the author accidentally gets acquainted with Julia Maltseva and, when Venka returns from the Provincial corner, introduces him to her. Venka loves Julia, but believes that he is not worth it: a few years ago he met one woman and then was ill. Although he soon recovered, nevertheless he believes that he should tell Julia about this. Venka wrote a letter, which explains Julia in love and admits that it oppresses him. The letter Venka drops the same night in the mailbox, and the next morning as part of a detachment of six people sent to the taiga to catch Bones Vorontsov.
The detachment arrives at the zaimka, where Kostya’s beloved woman, Klanka Zvyagina, lives. After the conventional sign, the detachment approaches the house, where he finds Lazar Baukin, as well as connected Kostya and several members of his gang. The detachment returns to Dudari, on the way it is surrounded by equestrian police, which arrest Lazar. The head of the criminal investigation department informs Venka that he was presented to the award for organizing an operation to catch Kostya Vorontsov. Venka refuses the award, believing that he did not deserve it – it’s Lazar, whom Venka convinced in the virtues of Soviet power, detained Kostya, and the fact that Lazar was put “for verification” is unfair: he himself wanted everything to be according to the law, that he was tried for what he is to blame, and there is nothing to check it after what he did.
Venka is waiting for a letter from Yulia in response to a confession posted the day before. Uzelkov comes and asks Venka to admit him to Vorontsov. Venka refuses to do this, and then Uzelkov says that Venka is a narrow-minded man, as he had known before: today he accidentally read his love letter-it was in a book he gave to Yulia.
That same evening, Venka ends with a shot in the temple, and without knowing that Julia did not give Uzelkov his letters, and he himself in her absence took his book with the letter enclosed in it.