Guest Post: Writing is Cheaper than Therapy

I’m not one of those authors who grew up dreaming of becoming a novelist. The urge to write came upon me much later in life during a time of great personal stress. We all deal with stress in different ways. Some people run marathons, others run to therapy, and still others run to the mall for retail therapy. None of these were options for me at the time.

After years of a mandatory daily mile run around the high school track during gym class—a task which had to be accomplished in under ten minutes—I’ll only run to escape a killer hot on my heels. Otherwise, forget it! As for therapy, retail or otherwise, one of the factors causing me stress at the time was financial. We were eating macaroni and cheese casseroles most nights to stretch the food budget. No way could I afford a new pair of socks, let alone a shrink.

So I began to write, and before I knew it, I’d written a 50,000-word romance. Losing myself in my characters enabled me to escape my own problems, if only for a little while. I probably could have accomplished this by journaling, but as a teenager, I had discovered my mother was reading my diary. Once your deepest personal thoughts have been violated in this manner, you become reluctant to risk repeat exposure.

The crisis that had caused me to first start writing eventually passed, but I discovered writing fiction was so cathartic that I’ve never stopped. Ten years, many rewrites, and an additional 50,000 words later, my first foray into fiction became the second book I sold, and I’ve continued to write. Twenty-four years after typing that first sentence, I’ve now published sixteen adult novels, with a seventeenth in the works, and four novellas in mystery, romance, romantic suspense, and women’s fiction. Every book has a little of me in at least one of the characters but which characters and what traits remain my secret—with one exception.

In my Anastasia Pollack Crafting mystery series, Anastasia’s communist mother-in-law Lucille is patterned after my own communist mother-in-law. Anastasia’s reactions to her often mirror my own thoughts and actions from back when my mother-in-law was alive. Although I have to admit, Anastasia often handles these situations far better than I did at the time. In my defense, though, I’m only human. Anastasia is my better angel, personifying the woman I wish I were. That’s the beauty of fiction. We can recreate ourselves through our characters.

USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston’s latest book is Drop Dead Ornaments. She also writes under the pen name Emma Carlyle.  Check out her websites at www.loiswinston.com and
www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com.  You can connect with her on Twitter and sign up for her newsletter here.

Universities Can Be Hazardous To Your Health

The New York Times recently told the chilling story of a woman doctoral candidate who left her doctoral program in the late 1960s because she was sexually harassed and assaulted.  As she recounts it:

“There was no word for sexual harassment, there was no language for this, there was no Title IX, no administrator to report it to. I felt shame as if I had done something wrong, and there was no recourse. So I left.”

Well, despite Title IX and administrators to report such conduct to now, two women I know at the university where I was recently a visiting assistant professor were not a whole lot better off.  They each felt that their complaints about a graduate student they accused of stalking, harassment, and assault were grossly mishandled. One woman was my office mate, the other was a student who had taken five courses with me, and gone on a summer abroad program in London that I co-taught. Disgusted, my office mate left Michigan, and my student left the university before graduating because staying there was too traumatic.

Their stories and similar ones around the country inspired my new mystery State University of Murder.

Real people, places, events have never gone directly into my fiction: they’re transformed in myriad ways.  Those two women were widely covered in the media and their stories raised questions about administrative arrogance, malfeasance, and lack of humanity.  Traits that administrators at universities across the country demonstrate all too often.  I hear horror stories from friends who are teaching, and have heard them whenever I speak at a college or university.  Sooner or later somebody tells me about high-handed, grossly overpaid administrators.  It’s a national scandal.

In State University of Murder, professor Nick Hoffman has survived a mass shooting to find himself in a renamed department which has been moved to a different building in an attempt to tamp down the bad publicity generated by the shooting.  The brand-new new chairman, an import from France, is the height of grandiosity, not surprisingly with a first name like Napoléon.  Is the chairman mercurial and contemptuous?  Does he alienate nearly everyone he comes into contact with? Does he evoke murderous rage?  Absolutely.

As the mystery builds, I pay tribute along the way to the former assistant professor and the student who shared their stories with me.  And to the women students and faculty who find their universities toxic despite how far we’ve supposedly come from the 1960s.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com where he also offers editing services.  His latest academic mystery is State University of Murder and his June workshop is Mystery Writing 1.0.

 

A Taste of Grand Rapids, Michigan

The word is that beautiful Grand Rapids is fast becoming a destination city for its museums, restaurants, music, as well as the yearly international ArtPrize competition. I was there again last week to do an interview on WGVU about my kids’ self-esteem program, Stick Up For Yourself!  It’s sold close to 300,000 copies, been translated into over a dozen languages, and is now available in a revised and expanded edition.  The book teaches kids 9-13 how to build self-esteem, deal with bullies and powerlessness–and there’s a teacher’s guide, too. You can listen to the interview at the WGVU website.

Shelley Irwin at WGVU is a great host, prepared and focused and fun, so it’s always a treat to be on her show.  Once the interview was over, I crossed the river to enjoy myself even more. My first stop was a visit to the Meyer May House. This Frank Lloyd Wright home was built in the early 1900s for a clothier and has been scrupulously, lovingly restored thanks to period photos, original plans in a Wright archive, and memories of members of the May family itself.

The house is classic Wright, a symphony of horizontal lines.  Wright designed every detail from windows to carpets to wall sconces. The house is a work of art inside and out, the details all blending harmoniously in a rebuke to the over-stuffed Victorian and Edwardian homes of his youth.  There’s a short documentary online about the amazing restoration project well worth seeing before you go, or you can watch it at the welcome center.

The small tour included couples from Sweden and The Netherlands and I chatted briefly with each one in their language, but quickly ran out of vocabulary because I wasn’t prepared to speak anything but English on this trip.

My early lunch nearby at Grove was artful, too.  A very short drive away, it’s a small, elegant restaurant that is proud to be farm-to-table and award-winning.  The room is a blend of cool grays and browns, and the music is low-key, which suits the milieu.

I started with a delicious Moscato and tried two different appetizers because I was still celebrating a major birthday.  The deviled eggs with Japanese nori chips were very good, and the smoked salmon hush puppies were terrific.  The entree outdid them both: seasoned fried jasmine rice with ginger, celery, carrots, yuzu koshu, broccoli, and smoked duck. It was the fluffiest, most flavorful rice I’d ever had.

I rounded it all out with a double espresso and drove home happy that Grand Rapids is so close, so full of life, and has so much to offer.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com where he also offers editing services.  His latest academic mystery is State University of Murder.

 

When an Author’s Quirks Get in the Way: Chris Bohjalian and “The Flight Attendant”

Chris Bohjalian’s most recent novel of suspense tells a gripping story about an alcoholic flight attendant, Cassie Bowden, who wakes up in a luxury hotel bed in Dubai next to a murdered man she slept with the night before.  His throat’s been slashed and there’s lots of blood in the bed.  When she drinks too much, she has blackouts, and she’s wondering if she could have killed him, though she can’t imagine why.

What should she do now?

Cassie has a history of bad choices and some of what she does immediately and in the days after her horrific discovery is truly off the wall–when it’s not just plain dumb.  The lawyer who eventually tries to help her has no problem calling her crazy.

So who killed Cassie’s sexy, wealthy hook-up?  And was he really a hedge fund manager?  Cassie doesn’t know, but before long she starts suspecting that she’s being followed.  In classic thriller style, her troubles escalate as the story unfolds, and often because of her own mistakes.  Cassie is almost a total screw-up, but it’s hard not to sympathize with her, given the alcoholism in her family.  And given that she’s painfully aware of how stuck she is in very bad patterns:

She wanted to be different from what she was–to be anything but what she was.  But every day that grew less and less likely.  Life, it seemed to her…was nothing but a narrowing of opportunities.  It was a funnel.

The details of her work life in the air and on the ground are fascinating, ditto how she interacts with her fellow flight attendants, and Bohjalian is at his best describing Cassie’s shame about her alcoholic blackouts.

But the writing is a bit odd at times. Streets and aisles are described as “thin” rather than “narrow” for no apparent reason. The author has a fondness for unusual words like “gamically,” “cycloid,” “niveous,” “ineludibly,” “noctivagant,” and “fioritura” which stop you right in your tracks.  The last one is a doozy.  It refers to vocal ornamentation in opera and seems totally out of place in describing a lawyer’s complaint to her client.

At a point when Cassie is longing for a drink, it’s not enough for Bohjalian to call it her ambrosia.  No, he has to pile on synonyms “amrita” and “essentia.”  Seriously?

You get the feeling with all these splashy word choices that Bohjalian is showing off, but why would a best-selling author bother?  Does he somehow feel that he has to jazz up his thriller with fancy-shmancy diction to prove that he’s more than just a genre writer?

Bohjalian also spends way too much time on Cassie’s amygdala, her “lizard” brain, and mistakenly thinks it’s a seat of reflection.  It isn’t.

Almost as annoying as his vocabulary or his weak grasp of neuroscience is the fact that his American characters sound British when they use “rather” as in statements like “I rather doubt that–” Even the narrative employs “rather” as a modifier way too often.  This is apparently a tic of his that nobody’s bothered to point out to him. Likewise, Bohjalian uses formal phrasing in a story that’s anything but formal, so time and again there are constructions like this one: “She hadn’t a choice.” Given the book that he’s written, “She didn’t have a choice” seems more direct and natural.

Despite the distracting quirks, I stuck with this thriller because the protagonist is a fascinating hot mess and Bohjalian is a solid story teller when he gets out of his own way.  The novel has some fine twists and a satisfying and surprisingly heartwarming ending.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres including the newly-released mystery State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com where he also offers editing services.

Guest Post: The One Thing You’re Missing When Evaluating Your Writing

One thing we writers must do is regularly seek feedback on our work. It’s the only way we can expect to improve.

The problem is, most of us go about it all wrong.

Let’s say Sandy creates a story and takes it to her writer’s group, submits it to a contest that offers critiques, or hires an editor. Her ultimate goal is to get feedback, but when she gets it, she focuses on only one part of it—the negative. Like most writers, she zeroes in on what she perceives to be her weaknesses, or on what she feels she did wrong.

Seemingly forgotten are all those comments describing what she did well.

This approach may make sense to you. After all, aren’t we supposed to work on our weak areas to improve as writers? Once we fix these, don’t we become publishable, potentially bestselling authors?

Logical, except it rarely works that way. Instead, what usually happens is you work for months or maybe years trying to fix what’s wrong, and odds are what you’ll have to show for it will be a slightly better story, but one that’s still not good enough to attract the eye of an agent or editor.

What happened? Your writing coach or group or editor or whoever it was said your dialogue was weak, and you needed to speed up the pacing. You worked on both and afterward “they” said it was better. So why didn’t you get the result you were hoping for?

Making a weakness less of a weakness is not enough to make you competitive in today’s market. Competition is too fierce.

Focusing mostly on your weaknesses results only in mediocrity. To succeed as a writer, you’ve got to find a way to be extraordinary.

Why Writers Must Identify and Focus on Their Strengths

Bestselling author Paul B. Brown wrote in Forbes, “You are far better off capitalizing on what you do best, instead of trying to offset your weakness. Making a weakness less of a weakness is simply not as good as being the best you possibly can be at something.”

I’m not saying you should ignore your weaknesses completely. When I first started writing novels, I hired an editor and got feedback that was really helpful. She pointed out my weaknesses, and I spent a good amount of time studying plot, story structure, conflict, and suspense.

It was time well spent as we all need to educate ourselves in the craft of writing. The problem was that I spent more time on those things than I did building my strengths, which slowed my progress considerably.

As long as you’re stuck in the “fixing your weaknesses” mindset, you’ll remain blind to the things you do really well—and that will keep you from reaching your highest potential.

Maybe you’re great at writing stories that make people think, or that keep them up at night. Maybe you’re an amazing world builder or mystery plot-weaver, or perhaps you have a special way of getting across a strong argument.

What are your strengths as a writer? You must discover the answer to that question, for only then can you start to build on those strengths and become the best writer you can be. For more information on how to use your strengths to build a noticeable author platform, check out Colleen’s new book, Writer Get Noticed! Get your free chapter here.

Colleen M. Story’s Writer Get Noticed! is a strengths-based guide to help writers break the spell of invisibility and discover unique author platforms that will draw readers their way. With over 20 years in the creative industry, Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness and Writer CEO. Her author website is colleenmstory.com and you can follow her on Twitter @colleen_m_story.

University Abuse Scandals Inspired My Latest Mystery

People often ask me at readings, “Where do you get your ideas?”  In another context, the writer Lawrence Kushner once wrote, “Entrances are everywhere and all the time.”  That’s how I feel about my books: a door can unexpectedly open whether I was looking for one or not.  I walk across the threshold and discover a new world.

After I returned in 2011 from another book tour in Germany, the chair of the English Department at Michigan State University asked if I’d consider teaching for them.  I was delighted because I come from a family of teachers and had taught at various schools for over a decade before he contacted me, including two years at MSU after I earned my PhD.  He was delighted to have me join the faculty because in his words, I had published more books than any single professor and more than the entire creative writing faculty put together.

Flash forward a few years.  One afternoon, my office mate looks shaken and she tells me a terrifying story of an ex-boyfriend breaking into her apartment and roughing up her current boyfriend.  The police get involved, there’s a restraining order, but she eventually comes to feel that the department and the university fail her.  Soon after, one of my students tells me about being stalked and I quickly realize she’s talking about the same man.  She ends up leaving MSU before she can finish her degree because she’s so traumatized by how dilatory and even hostile MSU officials seem to be in dealing with her case.

Then the giant Larry Nassar scandal breaks.

Real people, places, events have never gone directly into my fiction: they’re transformed in myriad ways.  The two women I knew were widely covered in the media and their stories raised questions about administrative arrogance, malfeasance, and lack of humanity.  Traits that administrators at universities across the country demonstrate all too often.  I hear these stories from friends who are teaching, and have heard them whenever I speak at a college or university.  Sooner or later somebody tells me about high-handed, grossly overpaid administrators.  It’s a national scandal.

In State University of Murder, professor Nick Hoffman has survived a mass shooting to find himself in a renamed department which has been moved to a different building in an attempt to tamp down the bad publicity generated by the shooting.  The brand-new new chairman, an import from France, is the height of grandiosity, not surprisingly with a first name like Napoléon.  Is he mercurial and contemptuous?  Does he alienate nearly everyone he comes into contact with? Does he evoke murderous rage?  Absolutely.

As the mystery builds, I pay quiet tribute along the way to the former assistant professor and the student who shared their stories with me.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery including the just released State University of Murder.  His next online creative writing workshop at writewithoutborders is Finding Your Memoir and runs for the month of August. 

How My Mother Inspired My Mystery Series

I started a mystery series in the 1990s thanks to my absurdly well-read, multi-lingual mother. When I was publishing literary fiction in the 1980s, she had surprisingly urged me more than once to write for a wider audience. She was right, though it took me a while to see that. Once I did publish mysteries, my audience grew and so did my name recognition.

She had filled me with a love of all kinds of books as a child by reading to me, helping me learn to read myself, getting me a library card early, and taking me to our Beaux Arts library every week. She never forbade me borrowing any book no matter the subject or reading level, and she mocked the juvenile reading assignments we had at school. Sometimes she even mocked my teachers themselves. Born in St. Petersburg and raised in Poland, she spoke English better than a few of my native-born teachers and she was a scathing critic of their pretensions when she returned from parent-teacher conferences in elementary school, especially the one who tried speaking French to her because my parents had lived in Belgium for five years. When that teacher had asked her something in (awful) French, my nonplussed mother reported saying, “Excuse me? What language is that?” It was delicious to feel part of a conspiracy with my mother, and I think I was already learning something about appearance, reality, pomposity, and satire that would help me years later in my mysteries.

(my first library on West 145th Street in Manhattan)

This erudite and witty Holocaust survivor who loved Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, Aldous Huxley, Balzac, and Stefan Zweig also adored mysteries. Devoured them. She read mysteries with the devotion she gave to the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, which she said had helped her perfect her English once she got to the United States. I suspect it might also have helped her face the puzzle of her own life, her miraculous survival when so many dozens of her family members had perished or been murdered during the war.

On a typical day, the shelves in my parents’ bedroom where she kept her library books would have a wide range of mysteries, and thanks to her, I discovered Agatha Christie, John Creasey, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Daphne du Maurier, and Phoebe Atwood Taylor–a very eclectic bunch, no?

My mother was also a splendid, unpretentious cook. She had grown up somewhat privileged in northeastern Poland in a bourgeois-intellectual family with a maid, and had never prepared any food for herself, not even a cup of tea until after W.W. II—or so my father claimed. Whatever the truth of that, her cooking was deft and never called attention to itself. She casually cracked eggs with one hand, stirred bowls like a magician casting a spell with his wand. Her omelets were miraculously fluffy, her cakes and cookies the envy of my friends. Though she couldn’t sing or dance, she was at her most elegant when she cooked or baked, despite our small Washington Heights kitchen.

When I started my mystery series, I quietly dedicated it to her, though she would never be able to read any of it, because by that point she had drifted far out onto the sea of dementia. I made my narrator, the besieged professor Nick Hoffman, a foodie and a book lover. I also made him something of an outsider since he’s a New Yorker in Michigan. In another private nod to my mother, I gave Nick in-laws who were refugees from Belgium. Lines that my mother had said or might have said weave their way through the series in silent tribute.

Someone who idolized that paper, she would have been proud to see my series reviewed in the New York Times Book Review more than once. I hope she would have recognized herself in this line from one of those reviews: “Nick Hoffman mows down intellectual pretenders with his scathing wit….the idiocies of academe always bring out the caustic humor that is the best part of him.”

My mother was the child of revolution, born to a Menshevik father who had to flee St. Petersburg when the Bolsheviks seized power. Through my childhood and adolescence, I watched her endlessly discuss history, politics, and state power with neighbors and friends. Her perspective on international affairs was informed by her deep reading in current events and her encounters with Soviet and Nazi brutality, but that didn’t mean she had lost her sense of humor. She once quipped that Spiro Agnew’s droning speeches reminded her of “Stalin on a bad day.” And she noted that a week before Stalin died, she had toasted to his demise at a party of Holocaust survivors. “It worked! Maybe I should have tried that sooner?”

She loathed Nixon and the Vietnam War and had made plans to get me to Canada should I be drafted. I know she would be appalled by the growth of our national security apparatus and the way it’s trickled down to local police departments who have become obscenely militarized. I wrote Assault with a Deadly Lie, due in October, with that massive cultural shift and my mother very much in mind. It’s the darkest book in the series. Nick Hoffman’s academic world is invaded by stalking, harassment, police brutality, and much more. In a way, this book is not just a continuation of the series, it’s a continuation of the conversation I’ve been having with my mother ever since she stopped talking to anyone back in the early 1990s, ever since that voluble, highly intellectual woman disappeared into silence. She may have been dead now since 1999, but in my mysteries, this one especially, she’s profoundly, beautifully alive.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.  His next online creative writing workshop is Mystery Writing 1.0 and runs for the month of June.  This blog originally appeared on the Mysteristas site.

My Mother’s Beautiful Life Lesson

I think about my literate, multi-lingual mother all the time, even though she died twenty years ago.

Well-read and well-educated, she inspired me with a love of learning for its own sake. She was always ready to help me with homework in any subject, made me pay attention to politics and the news, and encouraged me to follow my dreams of travel to Europe. Even though I started learning French in fourth grade, my command of that language wouldn’t be as good as it is if she hadn’t been so thorough and patient a tutor.

More than that, she also taught me a valuable life lesson. I was pretty young when my parents, my brother and I were walking into some downtown Manhattan restaurant for lunch and we were approached by a homeless man.

I didn’t understand anything about how people in our wealthy society could end up at the bottom, I’d never been in a situation like that, and I was embarrassed and confused.

Dressed in several layers of clothing including a tweed topcoat that seemed too heavy for the season, the man asked my mother for a cigarette, sounding as formal as a college professor. She opened her purse and offered him a whole pack of Larks. And money.

He shook his head in thanks, said, “One cigarette was all I asked for.” And that’s all he took.

Inside, I asked why she had offered him all of her cigarettes. My mother was a Holocaust survivor and had seen worlds of horror that I was only just beginning to learn about. What she next said has always stuck with me: “I could never beg for anything in the war. If someone does what he did, I have to say yes.”

It was an eye-opening, heart-expanding moment.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of 26 books in genres from mystery to memoir. He also teaches creative writing on line at http://writewithoutborders.com/

Sunday Night’s Battle of Winterfell Was a Hot, Dark Mess

SPOILERS AHEAD

I’ve been watching GOT for years and have enjoyed the battle scenes, but yesterday’s over-long episode was a dud, and stole too much from World War Z and The Lord of the Rings.  It may have cost millions to film, but it looked like crap.

Yes, there were some exciting moments in the long-awaited confrontation, but they didn’t sustain almost ninety minutes of slashing and stabbing and hacking and running and shouting.  Much of it pointless, and some of it ridiculous.

My main problem was with the choices of the director and cinematographer.  Most of the episode was murky and hard to follow, especially the long periods where John and Dany piloted their dragons in the sky and it was hard to know what exactly they were trying to do or where they were.  Would it have spoiled anything to have been able to see the action more clearly or killed the writers to add even one line of dialogue?  Grunting doesn’t count.  And how was John suddenly so adept at flying a dragon when he’d only recently climbed aboard one?  Did he take a seminar?

Scenes inside Winterfell were just as murky as the ones in the air, but worse than that, they felt as repetitive as all the endless zombie attacks in The Walking Dead where the heroes stab and hack at a horde of zombies or loners. And they were very confusing because of the editing.  It would look like someone was dying, then it didn’t, then it did? That’s a cheap way to build suspense or at least try to sustain it.

Why did Arya flee to the library of all places when it wasn’t defensible? Likewise, why did we need to see her run through one hallway after another?  Yes, we got it: she was trying to escape.  Shouldn’t she have been able to find someplace better to hide–it’s her home after all.

More questions proliferated.  How did Dany survive amid the gigantic scrum of the dead attacking her? Why did the Red Lady give up the ghost? Why did we have to see the Night King approach Bran in slow motion? And given his amazing powers, why didn’t Old Blue Eyes head directly to Bran since Bran was so poorly defended?  If Bran was his target, the armies massed against the White Walkers and company could have waited. The entire battle was a frigging waste of time.

Previous battle scenes in the series have been clearer, more exiting, and more coherently filmed.  Most of this episode felt like the endless last half hour of a superhero movie or action thriller.  Instead of explosions we had dragon fire.  Lots and lots and lots of dragon fire.  And dead people tumbling all over each other like lemmings.

The night-time battle at Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings, which was echoed throughout the episode, was much more dramatic and more clearly staged and filmed.  Halfway through last night, I didn’t care who lived or died, just hoped the episode would end soon because it was so tedious and illogical.  Final questions: Did Sansa and Tyrion really need to stare at each other wordlessly for what seemed like minutes before actually doing something?  And how did Arya suddenly appear out of nowhere to become the savior of the Seven Kingdoms?

I’m a fan of the novels, but this battle did not live up to their promise or even match previous seasons of the TV series itself.  It was dreary, dull, and self-defeating.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing on line at writewithoutborders.com.  He is a big fan of fantasy and science fiction in print and on screen.

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.