Must-read Crime Fiction About Russia

I’ve lost track of how many mysteries and thrillers I’ve read, and not just because I’ve been reading crime fiction since junior high. I also spent a good decade reviewing crime fiction for The Detroit Free press, everything from best sellers to European mysteries in translation. I’ve even taught crime fiction courses and workshops, but it’s rare when I want to re-read a book in this genre.  Even rarer: wanting to re-read a whole series.

But Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkendy Renko series is just that good and I’m almost halfway through for the second time. Starting with Gorky Park, which was a film with William Hurt, the series of eight books is set in Russia before and after the fall of the Soviet Union.  It charts the very uneven path of Arkady Renko, a public investigator who is surly, cynical, defiant and heedless of consequences.  His father was a famous or infamous general during World War II, depending on who’s talking.  General Renko likely committed war crimes but also helped save the Soviet Union.

Arkady is nothing like the general and the name is a burden to him.  But then so is the stupidity and cupidity of his superiors, and the slovenly work other cops do. Renko is a classic outsider even though he officially works for the government and often finds himself being warned off cases or sidelined in some way.  This passage from the most recent book, Tatiana, deftly places Arkady in his milieu:

A golden youth, son of an infamous general, he had floated easily to the top.  By now, he should have been a deputy minister or, at the very least, a prosecutor, ruler of his own precinct and feasting at the public trough.  Somehow, he had wandered.  Almost all the cases that came his way were fueled by vodka and capped by a drunken confession.  Crimes that displayed planning and intelligence were all to often followed by a phone call from above, with advice to “go easy” or not “make waves.”  Instead of bending, he pushed back, and so guaranteed his descent from early promise to pariah.

Renko gets himself transferred from Moscow to a small town in Stalin’s Ghost for complex reasons and the drive to tiny Tver is the opportunity for him to reflect on how Russia is two very different countries, one wealthy and one anything but.  Leaving Moscow, there’s no

Mercedes, no Bolshoi, no sushi,. no paved-over world; instead mud, geese, apples rolling off a horse cart.  No townhouses in gated communities, but cottages shared with cats and hens.  No billionaires, but men who sold vases by the highway because the crystal factory they worked at had no money to pay them so paid them in kind, making each man an entrepreneur holding a vase with one hand and swatting flies with the other.

Cruz Smith’s dialogue in every scene crackles, especially when people are talking about today’s Russia or what they consider timeless characteristics of its people. Here’s his heavy-drinking police comrade Victor discoursing about the national drink:

“Life would be wonderful without vodka.  But since the world is not wonderful, people need vodka.  Vodka is in our DNA.  That’s a fact.  The thing is, Russians are perfectionists.  That’s our curse.  It makes for great chess players and ballerinas and turns the rest of us into jealous inebriates. The question is not why don’t I drink less, it’s why don’t you drink more?”

There’s also stark poetry in his prose.  Here’s Arkady discovering a nemesis on his street: “It was 2 a.m., the hour between sweet dreams and dark despair, a time to pace the floor, not the sidewalk.”  Or thinking about the runaway kid he’s in effect adopted: “Zhenya was Pluto, a dark object detectable more by its effect on the planets than by direct observation.”

Every book in the series is dark, deep, thought-provoking and a voyage into a country whose history, culture, and current political and social reality we need to understand much better than we do.

Lev Raphael is teaching a mystery writing workshop in June at writewithoutborders.com.  He’s the author of 26 books, including the just-published State University of Murder.

The Poisonous World of American Universities

Essays, stories, and books of mine have been taught at colleges and universities around the country, so I’ve been invited to speak at many different institutions over the years, from Ivy League schools to community colleges.

They’ve all had something in common. Invariably, a faculty member will take me aside during my time there and tell me about somebody wildly eccentric or even out-of-control in their department. Or about a scandal, a schism, some long-simmering vendetta. And I think to myself, “You can’t make this stuff up…”

There was a professor who told me she had to quit serving on hiring committees because a senior professor announced that he didn’t like a candidate because “He smells.” Nobody else had noticed anything (not that it should have mattered) but they yielded to the professor’s seniority. Another related the story of a professor who unexpectedly and savagely attacked his own student at the student’s doctoral defense just to undermine a rival professor on the committee who liked his student. Crazy, right?

I’ve heard of people with barely any publications get tenure through favoritism and then when they achieved their ultimate goal of becoming administrators, they become petty, smiling dictators over faculty with far more experience and reputation. There’s constant infighting, piss-poor collegiality—but worst of all, the sad stories of contemptuous professors who treat their students like dirt. And lately, of course, stories of sexual harassment and abuse have darkened the picture.

I love teaching and come from a family of teachers. I left academia after over a decade of teaching because I wanted to write full-time, and my editor at St. Martin’s Press encouraged me to start a mystery series set in that environment. Outsiders slam academia for not being “the real world,” but I disagree 100%.

At times it’s far too real and so are many of its denizens: petty, vain, hypocritical, self-righteous, power-hungry, wildly egotistical, obsessed with stats (perceived or real).

I set my series at the fictional State University of Michigan in “Michiganapolis” somewhere in mid-Michigan. Outsiders can make great observers and sleuths, so my sleuth Nick Hoffman is primarily a composition teacher there. That’s made him low man on the totem pole in his Department of English, American Studies, and Rhetoric—especially since he enjoys teaching this basic course. He’s even more of an outsider because he’s published something useful, a bibliography of Edith Wharton, as opposed to a recondite work of criticism only a few dozen people might read or understand. On top of all that, he’s from the East Coast, he’s Jewish in a mostly Gentile department, and he’s out.

Seven years ago, I was recruited to teach creative writing at Michigan State University when the chair of the English Department realized I’d published more books than the entire creative writing faculty put together. I’ve had amazing students to work with, known a few friendly colleagues, and most importantly, I was able to pass on the terrific mentoring I got in college. But in my years at MSU I’ve heard more stories of mistreatment, poisonous arrogance, and basic cruelty on campus and from friends teaching across the country. It’s all material, of course–but it shouldn’t have to be.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.  He’s the author of 26 books in a wide range of genres including the just-published State University of Murder.

Happy Birthday Henry James! You Changed My Life!

I had an amazing senior year of college reading and reveling in George Eliot, Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Lawrence Durrell, Fitzgerald, and Henry James. While all of them inspired me to be a better writer of fiction–my goal in life–it was James who was the catalyst for perhaps the deepest change.

I was reading The Portrait of a Lady–which many critics consider The Great American Novel–at 3 AM when I came to the famous Chapter 42. That’s where the American heiress, Isabel Archer, has started to understand that there’s something wrong with her marriage and her life. She’s hoped for intellectual and emotional freedom, but life with her dilettante husband Osmond has turned out to be very different. Her Roman palace is a prison.

….she had seen where she really was. She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation.

I was thunderstruck. That was my house. My emotional house. Because I had never really talked about or written abut my parents’ experiences in the Holocaust, what that legacy meant to me. In the years to come, this subject matter would become central to the fiction and nonfiction I published and was known for. My first prize-winning story, published in Redbook, would be about a son of survivors and it launched my career.

Within days of reading Chapter 42, there was a clear difference in my work that my creative writing professor noticed. James had opened me up to myself in a way that no other author ever had. I was never the same man or writer again.

Of course, it wasn’t just the story that swept me away: the sumptuous prose, James’s sly humor, and his sharp depiction of the conflict of Americans and Europeans in that era transfixed me.

I’ve read Portrait many times since, always in new editions because I mark up my copies with comments, stars, and underlining. It keeps meaning different things to me, but I always remember that sense of discovery and liberation, and I will always be grateful.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books of fiction and nonfiction in genres from memoir to mystery. He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com. His latest book is State University of Murder.

The Age of Light is a Powerful, Hypnotic Debut Novel

In my years reviewing books on line, on air, and in print, one of the greatest joys has always been discovering a book by an author I was unfamiliar with, or better still, a debut novel that knocked me out.  The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer is my fiction find of the Spring, a masterful tale of art, ambition, genius, professional jealousy, love and betrayal set mainly in Paris between the two world wars.

The story is told from the perspective of view of Lee Miller, a beautiful young American fashion model-turned-photographer.  She falls in with older surrealist photographer Man Ray, already famous when she meets him in her early 20s. Though he’s American-born, he seems completely at home in the hard-drinking, hard-partying multi-national Parisian milieu of artists pushing boundaries, a milieu which is gossip-ridden and decadent around the edges.

At first she’s just his studio assistant, then she models for him, they move in together and collaborate, and in the end he unexpectedly takes public credit for remarkable, innovative work that’s actually hers.  It’s a stunning reversal because we’ve come to see the world as she sees it and we believe in the power of her art independent of her mentor’s.  Perhaps the most compelling moments are watching Miller frame her subjects, observing her discover Paris as teeming with subjects to be photographed.

Paris is cinematic and mouth-watering in Scharer’s descriptions like this one in which the city seems “built on the concept of form over function, where rows of jewel-toned petits fours gleam in a patisserie’s window, too flawless to eat.” Scharer is also deft at capturing various kinds of obsession, of moments where art, love, and lust fuse:

Always, always he is photographing her.  His camera is a third person in the bedroom, and she flirts for it and for him as he takes her picture.  They print the images together, standing hip to hip in the developing room, her body blooming on the paper while they watch.  This way they get to have the moments twice, the images calling up the feelings from the day before until sometimes they stop what they are doing and make love again, quickly, her hands gripping the sink, the picture forgotten and gone black in the developing tray.

The elegant prose and striking insights made me read The Age of Light  slowly because I kept stopping to reflect on lines and scenes.  Beginning writers could learn a lot from the author about creating setting, mood, character–and how to write a sex scene that doesn’t reduce its participants to an assemblage of body parts.

Scharer’s dialogue rings true and so do her period details and details about photography which I never saw in this light even though I once dated a photographer.  Entering a darkroom with Lee is as much an adventure as when she steps into a secret room filled with opium smokers.  Maybe more so.

The Age of Light is a novel to relish and return to, a book that could easily make you see your own world with new eyes.  It’s perfect for armchair travelers and anyone looking for a book that can transport you to another time and place, immerse you in a whole new reality.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books including the just-released State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

 

The Winter Sister is a Powerful Debut Mystery

Difficult, demanding mothers and abusive fathers are a staple of contemporary fiction, but The Winter Sister by Megan Collins gives both of those tropes an exciting new spin.

Her heroine Sylvie has lived with guilt and shame for years because of something she did that she feels led to her teenage sister’s murder. Though Sylvie is a talented painter, she’s something of a slacker. At thirty, she’s marking time in a tattoo parlor for complicated reasons that emerge over the course of the novel.  She still hasn’t found her way out of the maze of her traumatic childhood.

But confronting everything that’s held her back becomes inescapable when she returns home to care for her cancer-ridden mother Annie, who descended into alcoholism after the murder of her other daughter, Persephone. That addiction proves to be more complicated than it seems, because Sylvie’s mother “swallowed her secrets like pills, then chased them down with something she’d hoped would drown her.”

The murder was never solved but Sylvie is sure her sister’s boyfriend did it.  Is she right?  Is she wrong?  Is she even safe herself?

Why her mother gave Persephone a name from Greek myth is a significant part of the plot, and that myth is woven into the fabric of the novel.  Huge surprises lie ahead for Sylvie as well as the reader in this taut, beautifully written, tightly plotted, totally absorbing novel that may move you to tears.

Collins is a gifted writer: she takes you into the emotional lives of characters who are lost in suffering without bludgeoning you, and her graceful, evocative prose weightlessly carries a dark but redeeming story forward on every page.  I read it in two days because I couldn’t put it down.

I’ve been reading mysteries for years and was the crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press for a decade and The Winter Sister feels fresh to me. It may share some plot elements with many other novels out there, but reading it, you feel invigorated by Collins’ deft touch in writing about small town New England life and damaged souls desperately in need of healing, forgiveness, and love.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  Lev teaches creative writing workshops and offers editing and mentoring at writewithoutborders.com.  In June he’ll be teaching Mystery Writing 1.0.

 

 

A Taste of Grand Rapids

I was in Grand Rapids last week to do an interview on WGVU about my newest mystery State University of Murder. The host Shelley Irwin is a terrific interviewer because she’s so well-prepared and enthusiastic.

When we were finished, I stayed on to have even more fun. I crossed the Grand River to the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) and arrived when it opened at 10am. That’s my favorite time for any museum at home or abroad because there’s rarely a crowd and you can linger in front of a work without feeling like you’re getting in someone’s way.

I was lucky to grow up in New York Cuty where my parents took me to the Guggenheim, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA and others from as far back as I can remember. We went so often that I didn’t just have favorite artists, I had favorite paintings and sculptures.  I’ve always found enjoyment, solace, and adventure in museums and especially love encountering artists I don’t know or know only be name.  Or work by artists I admire but have never seen before.

GRAM is in a spectacular modernist building that has the feel of a temple, and it’s filled with light and attractive galleries for a collection spanning Rembrandt to Rauschenberg. Some years ago I saw a splendid Warhol retrospective there that made me appreciate the depth and range of his work, and I’ve also been to GRAM for the yearly international competition Art/Prize.

Last week, I was delighted to find a Rembrandt self-portrait engraving at GRAM because it reminded me of visiting his home in Amsterdam and all the times I’ve encountered his work in other museums here and abroad.  There were portraits everywhere that spoke to me, including the one below by Gilded Age painter William Merritt Chase.  His work has always appealed to me because I grew up in a Gilded Age apartment building and went to a public library built in the same period.  Seeing this “Lady in Opera Cloak” from 1893 also reminded me of the many Edith Wharton novels I’ve read.

Sated in one way, I was hungry in another and I strolled a few blocks over to Bistro Bella Vita and had a terrific lunch. The restaurant is in a former factory, has high ceilings, wooden pillars, exposed brick walls and a soothing color palette of orange and brown with a dash of teal for contrast.  I felt great before I even looked at a menu.

My affable server was very knowledgeable about the food and wine without being pedantic.  I started with roasted Brussels sprouts that had a sauce with Greek Yogurt as its base. That may sound like an unlikely combination, but it was delicious. I moved on to seared gnocchi which were perfect, not too soft, not too dense. House-made, they came in a savory ragù of pork and Riesling, topped with fried sage. It was to die for, truly.

I was full but couldn’t resist the olive oil cake which was airy and the lightest I’ve ever had–and beautifully presented as you can see above. Dining at this restaurant reminded me of fabulous bistro meals I’ve had in France, Italy, and Belgium, and I can’t wait to go back to Grand Rapids for another grand meal.

Lev Raphael is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and his favorite city in Europe is Ghent.  He’s the author of a memoir/travelogue My Germany and two dozen other books in a wide range of genres.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

“Do You Plot Your Mysteries?”

Noted journalist Andrea King Collier recently interviewed me ahead of A Rally of Writers where I’ll do a workshop on “Finding Your Sleuth.”

AKC: How much time do you spend on research? What’s the first thing you do when you start? How do you know when it’s time to just stop?

LR: I’m currently writing two novels and my research has involved interviewing experts in fields like medicine, law, advertising, and academic administration for insight into their jobs and more specifically, to answer “What if–?” questions. I don’t stop to do that, I like to keep writing while I wait to fill in the blanks, so I could be doing research even near the end of a book.  I often don’t know what I don’t know when I start a book, so that’s exciting.

AKC: You write mysteries among other genres. How do you hone in on what the next story might be?

LR: The stories usually come to me. And some days I feel like an airport dealing with planes that have been diverted because of bad weather: there are too many ideas buzzing around in my head. State University of Murder was partly inspired by the sexual assault crisis at MSU and the way other campuses have also been dealing with this issue. But I didn’t want to fictionalize any specific story in the news. Instead, I wove that theme into a book whose larger target is malfeasance and arrogance at the level of administrators.

AKC: Do you plot your mysteries or are they organic?

LR: It’s both. With a mystery I generally know three key things when I start: who’s been killed, how they died, and who the killer was. So I plot ahead, but not as far as I did when I started the series and needed more scaffolding. Each book now is organic because I keep asking myself “What happens next?” And I may decide to change the means, the motive, and even the murderer. It all depends on how the book evolves.

AKC: How do you silence your inner critic?

LR: I’m lucky.  That’s never been a problem for me because I had such an amazing creative writing mentor in college whose voice is still with me when I write and when I teach. Of course I have my doubts about every book I write or I’d be a jerk, but they don’t discourage me. The doubts push me to work harder, think smarter. If I get stuck, I don’t despair.  I know that it’s usually because there’s a question in the book that I haven’t answered well enough for myself to move forward.

AKC: Who do you love to read?

Dozens of writers old and new. When it comes to mysteries, I especially enjoy Martin Cruz Smith, Sue Grafton, C.S. Harris–all very different, and reading voices that collide inspires me. Right now I’m re-reading some books by D.H. Lawrence because his insight into his characters is wild. I’m a big fan of other modern authors like Virginia Woolf, Isherwood, and Evelyn Waugh. I also read a lot of novels in translation, with Zola and Balzac my favorites in that category.

AKC: Tell us about your online coaching classes

LR: I have almost twenty years of university teaching behind me and I’ve taken that experience online where I can mentor writers working on individual projects in any genre, and people signing up for a specific workshop, like my next one about mystery writing, which runs for the month of June. In each workshop and each interaction with a writer, I’m passing on the guidance and encouragement I got in college, and I add my own experience as a teacher, reviewer, and author.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  Lev teaches creative writing workshops and offers editing and mentoring at writewithoutborders.com.  In June he’ll be teaching Mystery Writing 1.0.