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.

“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.