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Find more Hard-Boiled Gazetteer
Russia as a setting for crime fiction? Did it all start when a browbeaten Moscow detective, Arkady Renko, unearthed three frozen bodies buried in Gorky Park, or does it go back much further, to these words written by Dostoyevsky in 1866: “On a very hot evening at the beginning of July a young man left his little room at the top of a house in Carpenter Lane, went out in the street, and, as though unable to make up his mind, walked slowly in the direction of Kokushkin Bridge.” Raskolnikov eventually makes up his mind to kill a certain money-lender, and with that decision, it might be said that crime fiction takes root in Russia.
Any tradition that begins with Crime and Punishment is bound to thrive, and so it has proved in Russia. The pre-Revolution era, of course, gave us the classic Russian writers, most of whom wrote on larger canvases than crime fiction typically offers, but look closely at the work of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, and the others, and if you don’t find hard-boiled novels, you will certainly find class struggle and the violence that accompanies it. Then came the Revolution and the decades of tyranny that followed, which gave us Solzhenitsyn, whose work takes noir to a new level of despair and hopelessness.
Meanwhile, the emergence of the Soviet Union as a superpower gave us the cold war espionage novel. Perhaps because few Western writers were privy to life inside Russia, the great spy novels tend to take place either along the iron curtain, or, in the case of le Carré’s Smiley series, in England. But the Soviet presence, if not the Russian landscape, is what drives the entire genre.
The collapse of the Soviet Union forced spy novelists to look elsewhere for material, but it opened up Russia to other kinds of crime writers. Totalitarian societies offer their own kind of possibilities for crime fiction (look at Cuba), but perhaps the richest soil of all in which to nurture the hard-boiled worldview comes in places where freedom has been recently acquired. New World license colliding with Old World reticence has a way of producing societal fission, a nuclear reaction that spawns the growth of criminal gangs, the release of long-simmering racial animosity, and, of course, rampant street crime. The new Russia has all of those things, and with them comes a new kind of fiction.
Our snapshot-style gazetteer couldn’t possibly address the full evolution of Russian crime fiction, so we’ve focused on what’s been happening in the post-Soviet era, with a nod or two to some historical antecedents. And that brings us back to those bodies in Gorky Park. Martin Cruz Smith’s novel was written a few years before the fall of the iron curtain, but the walls were starting to tremble. The thawing of those bodies buried in the ice seemed to signal a new era, at least in fiction. Soon enough, it would no longer be so easy to hide the bodies in Russia, and with corpses come criminal investigations.
Thanks, as always, go to all the Booklist reviewers whose sterling words were excerpted in these annotations.
Representative title: Wolves Eat Dogs. 2004. Simon & Schuster, $15 (9780671775957).
Smith’s series is centered in Moscow (see Gorky Park below), but police investigator Renko moves about the country from book to book. Here the terminally melancholic outsider investigates a baffling suicide that leads to a place where he feels oddly comfortable: the Zone of Exclusion, the dreaded no-man’s land around Chernobyl, a surreal shadow world where the dosimeters (to measure radiation) provide the backbeat for a grayed-out version of life just this side of The Twilight Zone. Cruz Smith’s remarkable ability to meld character to landscape has never shone quite as brightly as it does here.
Representative title: Volk’s Shadow. 2008. Holt, $25 (9780805082555).
Volk Volkovoy, a Russian black marketeer and covert military operative, prowls the alleys, cafés, and bars of Chechnya looking to turn a profit. A tortured soul whose wounds and pain (phantom and otherwise) extend farther than the prosthetic foot in which he conceals a knife, Volk is the quintessential subterranean man in the new Russia, most alive when he is strategizing or struggling to survive. Underground men, from Dostoyevsky through Solzhenitsyn, have always been central to Russian literature, and Ghelfi brilliantly adapts the archetype to the post-Soviet era.
Le Carré has made a career out of dramatizing the lives of disenchanted spies who choose the personal over the political, but here he shows us the flip side: a retired British spymaster who chases his idealistic lover to Chechnya but instead of rescuing her finds himself deep in the Caucasus, fighting the good fight with a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. The most frightening aspect of this gripping novel, which draws superbly on the human and ethical conundrums of Bosnia and Chechnya, is how appealing le Carré’s reconstituted true believers seem.
Le Carré has reinvented the rules of espionage fiction numerous times, and here he takes the spy novel beyond spies and into the shark-infested, quintessentially postmodern world of international finance. “Money,” says the British financier at the heart of the story, “is the best general-purpose tool in the world,” and no one is as eager to use that tool as Russia’s newly minted capitalists. On a journey that extends from London to the Republic of Georgia to Istanbul, the reader marvels at le Carré’s ability to follow not just the money but the human passions behind it.
Archangel. By Robert Harris. 1999. Penguin, $7.99 (9780515127485).
Alternate-history master Harris posits the existence of a secret diary that reveals the fact that Stalin had a son. Historian Fluke Kelso, in Moscow for a conference, follows the trail of the diary to the remote village of Archangel, where it appears young Joe may soon follow in his father’s footsteps. The romanticization of Stalin is a recognized contemporary phenomenon in Russia, and Harris takes it to its logical extension. (See Martin Cruz Smith’s Stalin’s Ghost for another take on this theme.)
Representative title: Gorky Park. 1981. Random, $13.95 (9780812977240).
“They lay peacefully, even artfully, under their thawing crust of ice, the center one on its back, hands folded as if for a religious funeral, the other two turned, arms out under the ice like flanking emblems on embossed writing paper. They were wearing ice skates.” So begins the great set piece with which Cruz Smith opens his landmark novel. From this scene onward, the Renko series has always been about the perils of digging: whether it’s bodies under the snow or radioactive facts that the powerful want to keep hidden, the treasures that Renko seeks always contain the seeds of his own destruction. But, somehow, digging his own grave is what keeps him alive—and keeps us reading.
Representative title: Red Hot Blues. 1998. St. Martin’s, $28.99 (9780312291969 ).
Russian immigrant Artie Cohen is a New York cop determined to leave the old country behind, but it’s just not going to happen, especially as the Russian Mafia sets up shop in Brighton Beach. In this first in the series, the murder of Artie’s godfather, a former KGB general, takes place on New York television; Artie catches the case, of course, and the trail leads him home: “When the Soviets went, the stopper came out of the bottle, and Moscow became sin city.” Through the seven novels in this series, Nadelson has painted a neon-bright portrait of the new Russia, awash in sleaze, money, and chaos.
Representative title: Vodka Neat. 2008. Felony & Mayhem, $14.95 (9781934609347).
British foreign correspondent Zanetti, formerly married to a Russian black marketeer, is happy to be assigned to the Moscow desk, not only to revisit a country she loves but also because the grim fatalism of modern Russia makes it a perfect fit for her cynical, hard-drinking, single-suitcase approach to life. But she doesn’t count on being arrested for a decade-old murder shortly after she arrives. Thick with the icy atmosphere of the Russian winter, Blundy’s prose vividly evokes the post-Soviet era.
. Ed. by Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen. 2010. Akashic, $15.95 (9781936070060).
Typically, a location becomes hot on the international crime map when an American author writes about it with special flair, as Cruz Smith did about Moscow. But, eventually, the new hot spot’s native writers make their way to the U.S., and we come to see the landscape from a much more intimate point of view. This hard-hitting anthology of noir fiction by Russian authors may signal the arrival of more Russians in our crime bookstores and libraries. If so, be ready for the hard stuff. Take Vladimir Tuchkov’s “Pure Ponds, Dirty Sex; or, Two Army Buddies Meet.” Put it this way: the ponds are anything but pure, and the army buddies are trying to kill one another.
Representative title: A Killing in Moscow. 1994. Minotaur, $21.95 (9780312104870).
Peter Ashton, like Adam Hall’s Quiller, is more realistic than James Bond but more of a superspy than George Smiley. In this second in British espionage master Egleton’s long-running series, Ashton insists on solving a triple murder in Moscow that both the British and Russians want to ignore. A typical example of how some cold war authors tweaked their plots a bit after the fall of the Soviet Union but essentially kept writing the same novel—not that there’s all that much wrong with that.
Representative title: The Dog Who Bit a Policeman. 1998. Grand Central, $21.50 (9780892966677).
In this twelfth Porfiry Rostnikov novel, Moscow’s mean streets have gone way beyond mean: trained attack dogs abandoned by owners who can’t afford to feed them are running in packs and savaging Muscovites. Working with this exquisite metaphor for life in the new Russia, Kaminsky captures the overwhelming melancholy his overburdened detective feels in the face of life run amok. The world, Rostnikov tells a colleague, is a strange, sad, and oddly wonderful place, and Moscow is at its center.
The space race told from the point of view of the losing Russian side. Naturally, there’s more to the story as Cassutt tells it than the triumph of American ingenuity. Why, for example, did Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, die in a plane crash? An accident or part of a cover-up? For those who find The Right Stuff a little on the squeaky-clean side, this believable cold war thriller makes the crew-cut, rosy-cheeked American version seem a little like Ozzie and Harriet Visit the Moon.
Red to Black.
By Alex Dryden. 2010. Ecco, $25.99 (9780061803864).
Anna, a Russian spy, is assigned to seduce Finn, a British spy, in Moscow. Finn allows it to happen, and they soon fall in love. Meanwhile, Finn attempts to ferret out a Kremlin plot that could threaten freedom in all of Europe. Like le Carré, or Graham Greene in The Human Factor, first-novelist Dryden explores the demilitarized zone between the personal and the political. Minefields, he concludes, don’t need cold wars to make them treacherous.
American Alice Liddell, for whom all bottles urge “drink me,” arrives in Moscow at the collapse of the Soviet Union to oversee privatization of the iconic vodka factory Red October. In the face of a country tumbling toward anarchy, she soon sluices down an alcoholic rabbit hole, but even that can’t hide her from a decadent panorama where Slavic gangsters and their Chechen rivals engage in a variety of cutthroat capitalism that evokes visions of Visigoths and Huns grappling for the leavings of ancient Rome.
Representative title: Victory Square. 2007. Minotaur, $14.95 (9780312374860).
It’s true that Romania, the unnamed Eastern European country in which Steinhauer’s Emil Brod series is set, is outside the parameters of our gazetteer, but these novels capture so vividly the milieu in which an iron curtain cop was forced to operate that to exclude them on a the basis of a geographical nicety would be, well, an example of totalitarian blindness. In this fifth and final installment in the series, Brod, the sixtysomething chief of the People’s Militia, reinvestigates his first case as his country’s repressive regime collapses around him. This is remarkable storytelling, exploring the life cycle of a state through the eyes of political idealists, government informants, and good cops such as Brod, who just want to solve crimes.
The influence of Dostoyevsky’s classic novel on fiction in general and crime fiction in particular is almost immeasurable. Every modern psychological thriller can trace its roots to the mind games played by investigator Porfiry Petrovich and the tortured killer Raskolnikov. As traces of Raskolnikov can be found in twentieth-century existential antiheroes from Camus’ Mersault onward, so Porfiry lives in such introspective, intellectual investigators as P. D. James’ Adam Dalgleish, Nicholas Freeling’s Henri Castang, Batya Gur’s Michael Ohayon, and many others.
Dead Meat. By Philip Kerr. 1994. Grand Central, $5.99 (9780446403795).
Mikhail Milyukin, Russia’s first investigative journalist, is executed Mafia style. Finding his killers and the reason for the murder falls to relentless militia officer Yevgeni Grushko. Like Reggie Nadelson, Kerr finds in the emergence of the Russian Mafia, and in the impact the Mob has had on the landscape of Russian cities, a crime-fiction subject every bit as rich as the cold war. This stand-alone works as a good man versus Mob thriller, but Kerr’s research into the ethnic foundation of Russian gangs grounds the tale firmly in its place and time.
Representative title: A Vengeful Longing. 2008. Penguin, $11.25 (9780143115496).
It seems so inevitable one wonders why it took so long to happen: a crime series set in nineteenth-century St. Petersburg and starring Dostoyevsky’s own detective, Porfiry Petrovich. Morris sticks closely to Porfiry’s Dostoyevskian roots, but at the same time, he makes the character his own. His portrait of St. Petersburg, abandoned by the well-to-do in summer, offers a rich, palpably fetid sense of place that directly evokes Crime andPunishment.
Remaining apolitical is a tall order for a Jew in 1914, but that’s what St. Petersburg psychoanalyst Otto Spethmann tries to do, despite the swirling tide of revolution and war that threatens to engulf him. It all falls apart when he is thrust into a politically charged murder case and lands in what chess players call zugzwang—a position of utter helplessness. Readers who love Anna Karenina as much as they enjoy a gripping mystery will find a little slice of heaven here.
Representative title: Dead Men Living.2000. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, $24 (9780312243791).
British agent Charlie Muffin is getting along just fine in post-Soviet Russia. Then three bodies turn up after a Siberian thaw, and the cold war seems ready to heat up. Freemantle expertly plays Muffin’s bullheaded determination to sort it all out against his superiors’ bureaucratic compulsion to obfuscate. Complicating matters is Charlie’s lover, a former KGB officer whose position is tenuous at best. Freemantle, like le Carré, knows that the conflict at the heart of espionage fiction is not West versus East but individual versus organization. Charlie Muffin carries the individual’s colors as well as any character in the genre.
War of the Rats. By David L. Robbins. 1999. Bantam, $7.50 (9780553581355).
Robbins’ gripping story of two snipers—one Russian, one German, stalking one another during the Battle of Stalingrad—is more WWII thriller than hard-boiled novel, but the way in which the story is grounded in the bloodied bricks of a besieged city becomes a metaphor for how the Russian landscape is defined by the human conflict it hosts. This danse macabre between two deadly adversaries has been playing itself out on Russian soil, in one way or another, for centuries.
Representative title: Child 44. 2008. Grand Central, $7.99 (9780446402392).
What must life have been like for a cop in Stalin’s Russia, where solving a crime could become the investigator’s death warrant? Smith shows us one such cop, Leo Demidov, who can’t ignore that a serial killer is preying on children in cities along the Trans-Siberian Railroad (acknowledging that a serial killer could exist in Soviet Russia is tantamount to treason). Smith personalizes the Orwellian horrors of life in Stalin’s Russia through the eyes of a Chandlerian copper who just wants to get at the truth.
Representative title: Quiller Meridian.1993. HarperCollins, $4.99 (9780380715343).
British spy Quiller, somewhere between James Bond and George Smiley on the believability scale, has seen it all. He first appeared in the Edgar-winning Quiller Memorandum (1965), set in West Berlin, and then tangled with all variety of Russian agents through 19 adventures. This seventeenth entry finds Quiller on the trail of a Russian contact who might help protect American interests as the Soviet Union splinters. The action begins in Bucharest and moves through Moscow but hits its suspenseful high point on the Trans-Siberian Express, as the new Russia gives way to the timeless Russia of Siberian steppes. Solid cold war espionage retrofitted for a new era.
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