Crime and Punishment
Alas, poor Boris. For you, the war is over.
I’ve been pondering for a few days how to lightly touch on the massive 800-pound bear that’s wandered into my little room. How do we scan Russia in a handful of hours and a few hundred lines? How the hell do you talk about a country and a people of such ferocity and human splendor?
Unfortunately for all you future Russian scholars, my little self-examination is merely an outgrowth of this month’s dirty little crime stories. I want to suggest a handful of brand-new, hot-off-the-press titles set in the exotic fortress that is Moscow without rehashing the entire tribal, political and post-modern saga of the Great Steppe, the Cold War and the current chill that has the country in its desperate grasp. Can you blame me?
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had the Russian history courses, marveled at the truly courageous global shifts of perestroika, and was shocked by the desperate final days of the USSR, an event that current president Vladmir Putin labeled “the largest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
This was all in my wisened middle age, of course. I have faith that the day The Wall came down I was coming down off an opium high in some rustic holding cell somewhere. To be perfectly honest with you, I have no clear memory at all of the event beyond the usual flashes of people tearing down that sideways concrete monolith with their bloody fingers. A year here, a year there. You misplace these things, too, right?
Somehow, this month, the Russians keep creeping up on me like a Cold War bureaucrat in a gray suit in a dark alley, wearing a sleek felt fedora. Encircling me like the many layers of a Matryoshka doll (stop). No, you’re right, the clichés just don’t seem to work for this weird, frigid, ominous country. Here’s the truth, how we got to this place.
Who really brought me here was a writer trying to do the right thing, somebody like you or me, who took four bullets -- one in the head -- in the claustrophobic elevator of her Moscow apartment building.
Through fate or misadventure, I ended up with with the last testament of Anna Politkovskaya, the aforementioned journalist and activist who was murdered last October. Her book, A Russian Diary: A Journalist’s Final Account of Life, Corruption and Death in Putin’s Russia, is a faithfully-translated, terrifying account of corruption, torture, official “disappearances” and terrorism in present-day Russia. It covers the broader movements of history, including the parliamentary elections of 2003, but it also tells of fear and loathing far stranger than any fictions. It’s particularly bizarre as it gets to the Beslan school siege, where 344 civilians and nearly 200 children were killed in a pitched gun battle between the Russian security forces and reportedly Chechan sympathizers, and during which Politkovskaya believed she was poisoned. A little over a year after her death, one of her sources -- a former KGB agent -- fell mysteriously ill after a meeting in London. His name? Aleksandr Litvinenko.
“Pull a string, a puppet moves,” Bukowski warned. It can all disappear just that quickly.
For another publication, I wrote a short highlight of a metal orb, one whose impacts were of a grander scale. Come the fall, I highly recommend Matthew Brzezinski’s Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age. It’s another nonfiction work that reads like a spy novel and will chill your blood right down to your bones. Its author was given unprecedented access to state secrets in both the U.S. and Moscow, a unique opportunity that’s ending one classified file at a time.
“My timing was good because in the mid-to-late 1990s all these previously classified Cold War files and memoirs, especially in Russia, were opened up under Clinton and Yeltsin,” Brzezinski told me. “This brief window is closing. Both in the US and in Russia under Putin, much is being officially reclassified and secrecy is back in vogue.”
The secret machinations of the Soviet machine kept coming to mind when they yanked the masterful chess player Garry Kasparov off the streets this week following his part in a demonstration opposing the current government. "They have no hook to proceed with criminal charges, but today in Russia, we know that nobody is safe," Kasparov said. It would seem that Kasparov has left chess behind. Shall we play a new game?
Then, yesterday afternoon. At four in the afternoon, Boris Yeltsin, a witness to the massive shifts in his native land, died of congestive heart failure. In a few days, they’ll take the old man to Novodevichy cemetery to rest beside Chekhov, cosmonauts and anarchists.
A day or two later and the current president Vladimir Putin is hedging his bets about naming a successor. "It is premature for me to declare a political will,” he says. That guy scares the hell out of me. The man has the same approach to Russian homeland security as the military forces in this month’s zombie flick 28 Weeks Later. Director Andrew MacDonald explains: “It gets out of control, and the Americans just say, 'Kill everybody.' First of all they shoot the infected, then they shoot everybody, and then they firebomb them with napalm, and then gas them with chemical weapons.'' Sounds like the official response to Beslan.
But I digress. We’re here to speak of books. All of these current geopolitical trails have led me here, in the present, with one of the most famous tellers of stories about both old Russia and its new world, Martin Cruz Smith. The appearance of a new novel starring his most famous creation, Arkady Renko, so soon after the equally elegent Chernobyl meditation Wolves Eat Dogs is something of a minor miracle. Stalin’s Ghost, the latest entry, appears in June.
Of course, you know all about Arkady Renko, having clocked the groundbreaking introduction to the series, Gorky Park, and even its somewhat clumsy 1983 cinematic translation starring William Hurt as Arkady. You’ve certainly read what I feel is the pinnacle among modern locked-room mysteries, Polar Star, which pits a renegade Renko against combatants trapped on board a Russian fishing trawler. 1992’s Red Square picks up Renko back in Moscow as he learns his way around the New Russia, where the greed, tyranny and corruption feels suspiciously like the Old Russia. An extended travelogue even gets the weary detective out of his element in Havana Bay, sending the detective to Cuba to identify the body of his old KGB nemesis Pribluda. But if you don’t know these elegant little gems scattered across three decades, stop reading and go buy books. They won’t disappoint you.
Stalin’s Ghost is probably not the last Renko novel, but it feels like a circle has been closed. Even the first lines of Stalin’s Ghost echo the amazing beginning of Gorky Park when Arkady is called out in the dead of night to investigate a mutilated corpse in a frozen Moscow park. Then, Smith declared, “All night should be so dark, all winters so warm, all headlights so dazzling.”
Here, Smith observes, “Winter was what Muscovites lived for. Winter knee-deep in snow that softened the city, flowed from golden dome to golden dome, resculpted statues and transformed park paths into skating trails. Snow that sometimes fell as a lacy haze, sometimes thick as down. Snow that made sedans of the rich and powerful crawl behind snowplows. Snow that folded and unfolded, teasing the eye with glimpses of an illuminated globe above the Central Telegraph Office, Apollo’s chariot leaving the Bolshoi, a sturgeon sketched in neon at a food emporium. Women shopped amid the gusts, gliding in long fur coats. Children dragged sleds and snowboards, while Lenin lay in his mausoleum, deaf to correction, wrapped in snow... And, in Arkady’s experience, when the snow melted, bodies would be discovered. In Moscow that was spring.”
Lots of baggage and even more ghosts loom around Renko this time around. The normally aloof detective continues his burgeoning relationship with the puzzling Eva Kazka, introduced in Wolves Eat Dogs. Also underfoot is the feral child and masterful chess player Zhenya who Arkady nominally adopted last time. Even the old Communist bosses start appearing in ghostly apparations and Renko is assigned to look into the sightings of Stalin in Moscow’s subways. Added to these concerns are former Black Beret Nikolai Isakov, a man with plenty of memories of the Chechan conflict, most of them from behind the trigger, and his potential involvement in a shadowy urban operation in which murder is bought and sold wholesale. Ghosts may fill the streets of Smith’s fictional Moscow, but his celebrated detective remains as grounded as they come, the eternal survivor of an eternally broken system.
If Arkady Renko is old school, the steely-eyed, fast-moving, paranoid narrator of Brent Ghelfi’s debut novel Volk’s Game is distinctly and singularly a graduate of the new school. Touted as a successor to Smith’s Russian detective series, the novel is far more of a punk noir alternative than an evolution of Renko’s classic game; Volk playing the Suicide Girls against the Playboy ethos of Arkady Renko.
The book’s titular hero is Alexei Volkovoy, a gangster trolling in the money stolen in fistfuls by Russia’s new millionaires. But unlike his Prada-wearing peers, Volk is damaged by the very experiences that made him a killer, and won’t slow down for anybody. “Six leech-infested months in a Chechnya mud pit taught many lessons, one of them proving that twenty-four hours of just plain waiting is nothing,” Volk muses. “An hour spent anticipating the next tied-down assault of rapists, skin-fillet artists, flesh-burning pyromaniacs, and other assorted torturers lasts for weeks.”
The plot is dispensible to the point of borderline offense, charging blunt instrument Volk with stealing a lost Da Vinci painting (get it? It’s like that book with the guy where they go around finding clues... oh, to hell with it) from a hidey-hole in the Hermitage. Yet even for that misstep, I have to give it up to Ghelfi, a Phoenix-based attorney, for carving out a singular voice for his broken hero, who rasps with the gritted-teeth menance of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher (Child himself calls the writer “Dostoevsky’s hooligan great-grandson on speed”) or Andrew Vachss’ hardcase do-gooder Burke. The voice hasn’t emerged as singularly Russian yet, but it would have been easy for Ghelfi to merely imitate Arkady’s weary eloquence instead of racheting up his own Tarantino vibe with a killer prone to Uzi gunfights and car chases through the grey streets of Moscow. With luck, Volk will take on a life of his own and start planning his own jobs without the help of market research and current trends. The boy has enough heart and steel to become something really special.
Our last selection for the month is so old school it predates all this revolutionary chaos. J. Kingston Pierce at The Rap Sheet turned me on to The Gentle Axe by R.N. Morris, an imaginative return of one of literature’s early detectives. Morris’ clever historical drama resurrects the ever-blinking Porfiry Petrovich, the elusive police detective who studies mad Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s immortal Crime and Punishment. Picking up shortly after the events of Dostoevsky’s novel, The Gentle Axe finds world-weary Porfiry on the scene in Petrovsky Park where two suspiciously-arranged bodies of a peasant and a dwarf have been found. It’s not perfect, lacking the thudding pace of Louis Bayard’s Poe tribute The Pale Blue Eye or the daunting characterizations of Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder, but it easily captures the odd half-tones of 19th century Russian literature while injecting a healthy dose of the zeitgeist of modern criminal storytelling. It’s a worthy companion to a long pour of Russian Standard on a wintery evening to come.
Crime, and punishment: the cross we all hang ourselves on. Don’t worry, my guilty companions. One day the war will be over for us, too.
"You're a gentleman," they used to say to him. "You shouldn't have gone murdering people with a hatchet; that's no occupation for a gentleman." Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment