Over the last century and a half, Russia has had what can only be described as an on-again, off-again relationship with crime fiction. Things began well, thanks to the publication in 1866 of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. That novel focuses on Rodion Raskolnikov, an impecunious law student in the then capital of St. Petersburg, who contrives to kill a pawnbroker for her cash, justifying his offense under the conviction that nobody will miss the contemptible old harridan and that he—a self-avowed man of genius—is of potentially greater value to society’s future than she ever could be. Dostoevsky followed that up 14 years later with another intensely philosophical tale of murder, The Brothers Karamazov, which turns on a case of patricide, spiced with moral guilt and a modicum of madness. As Dartmouth College professor George J. Demko declared in an online survey of Russian mysteries, “[t]he genre has rarely been launched more auspiciously in any country.”
But it was largely downhill from there. Yes, Anton Chekhov did compose some crime stories, most notably “The Swedish Match,” a mid-1880s locked-room mystery. And there was a flowering of interest in the field after the Revolution of 1905, which brought translations of tales featuring Sherlock Holmes, Nick Carter and other sleuths to Russian readers. Crime fiction’s popularity in the country continued through the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the founding of the USSR. By 1934, though, the Communist establishment had taken to denouncing detective fiction as “a weapon for bourgeois ascendancy over the remainder of the petty bourgeois masses and aimed at their demoralization.” Only following the demise in 1953 of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin did mystery and crime fiction begin to regain their standing in Russia. They’re now said to be well-regarded there once more, though homegrown contributors to the genre continue to have difficulty getting their work translated for English-speaking audiences.
Meanwhile, the international enmities of the Cold War provoked U.S. and U.K. novelists—from Ian Fleming and John le Carré to Alistair MacLean, Charles McCarry, Mickey Spillane and Tom Clancy—to knit “red” characters into their yarns or employ Moscow and lesser Russian locales as the backdrop for their fictional escapades. The number of crime and thriller stories taking place in the former USSR has grown dramatically since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, the breakup of the Soviet Republics and the easing of travel restrictions inside their borders.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin having recently sent troops to occupy the Crimean peninsula in neighboring Ukraine, and some chest-thumping U.S. politicians seemingly determined to reignite Cold War tensions, it seems a choice time to visit the world’s largest nation through eight tales of historical intrigue and high-stakes espionage.
A Razor Wrapped in Silk, by R.N. Morris (2010):
In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov falls under the scrutiny of investigating magistrate Porfiry Petrovich, who has a keen grasp of criminal psychology. However, Porfiry’s role in that novel is fairly minor. Not so in A Razor Wrapped in Silk. This third entry in a series (begun with The Gentle Axe) finds the same detective, in the St. Petersburg of 1870, probing the fates of foundling children who, after being saved from lives of penury, and schooled, have suddenly disappeared. Unfortunately, Porfiry is soon drawn off into a higher-profile case: the slaying, during a theatrical performance, of a woman with strong ties to the city’s upper crust as well as to Czar Alexander II. As these two mysteries converge, Porfiry wonders whether the killing at the theater wasn’t committed to cover up a considerably more heinous transgression.
The Winter Queen, by Boris Akunin; translated by Andrew Bromfield (2003):
Akunin (the pseudonym of Gregory Chkartashvili) is among the few Russian detektivy novelists to win a significant following west of Poland, and this is the opening installment of his series about Erast Fandorin. The year here is 1876, and Fandorin—an eccentric young civil servant with the Moscow police, who shows extraordinary analytical acumen—is enlisted to resolve questions surrounding the fate of a law student who perished during a public exhibition. Was it a case of suicide, perhaps linked to a woman known for entertaining Muscovite nobles? And why did the student leave behind such detailed instructions for the dispersal of his surprisingly substantial wealth? Fandorin’s probing takes him from high-priced poker games to a mysterious London hotel, and reveals an international scheme to topple his homeland’s regime.
The White Russian, by Tom Bradby (2003):
St. Petersburg again provides the surroundings for this romantic thriller by British TV journalist Tom Bradby. It’s 1917, and in the run-up to revolution, the bodies of an unidentified man and woman—both stabbed to death—are discovered on the frozen Neva River, right in front of the czar’s Winter Palace. Police investigator Alexander “Sandro” Ruzsky, recently returned from Siberian exile, learns that the female victim had been a nanny to the Imperial Family, dismissed for theft, though what she filched isn’t clear. The dead man, meanwhile, was an American criminal and labor agitator, in whose pockets were banknotes marked with tiny ink dots. A secret code of some sort? If so, who’s using it, and to what end? As Ruzsky slowly unpeels a conspiracy wrapped up in greed, politics and revenge, he must deal with a ballerina after whom both he and his soldier brother lust—a woman whose past makes her an intriguing but deadly companion.
Eye of the Red Tsar, by Sam Eastland (2010):
Once the most illustrious sleuth in Russia, and a favorite of Nicholas II—his country’s last czar, before the Bolshevik takeover—the man known as Pekkala was subsequently sentenced to 30 years in a Siberian labor camp. However, a decade after the 1918 execution of Nicholas and his family, Stalin calls on Pekkala to dig into the circumstances of those killings, find the people behind them and determine whether any of the royals survived. Yes, Pekkala’s success will reward the reviled Stalin with favorable press and maybe the czar’s missing treasure to boot, but it will also win the prisoner his freedom. As Pekkala journeys back through his nation’s history, and his own, he encounters a persistent enemy and an old flame, and uncovers a secret that could change the future of Mother Russia. Eastland is a nom de plume employed by author Paul Watkins (Ice Soldier).
Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith (2008):
Leo Demidov is a true believer in the Soviet Union as a Glorious Workers’ Paradise, a place where misdeeds common to the decadent West—such as homicide—don’t exist, and the only criminals are political ones. Yet it’s 1953, and this secret policeman has just been handed the case of a 4-year-old boy whose parents insist he was murdered. As more children turn up dead, mutilated and with their mouths full of dirt, Demidov begins to believe the impossible: that a serial killer is at large, one who’s claiming victims hundreds of miles apart. Of course, this theory is unpopular with his bosses, and it soon leads to Demidov and his beautiful (but suspect) wife being banished from their agreeable Moscow digs to the frozen hinterlands. Still, Demidov maintains the chase, one destined to make him both hunter and target. Smith’s story was inspired by real-life Russian butcher Andrei Chikatilo, aka “the Red Ripper.”
Isaak Ginsburg is a Jewish “lyric poet” living in Russia, who wants nothing more than to go to Israel. Instead, he’s sent to a slave-labor camp, where he is threatened and humiliated and told not to pen any more seditious verse. After his release, he commits himself to writing the most patriotic Communist poetry ever, hoping thereby to win the freedom of foreign travel, and an opportunity to defect from the USSR. But he soon meets a dying Estonian with a daring (nay, insane) plan to get even with the Soviets: steal the head of former premier Vladimir Lenin—whose body was embalmed shortly after his death in 1924—from his tomb in Moscow’s Red Square; and in exchange for the return of that revered noggin, the Soviets will have to grant Russian Jews one free year of emigration to the country of their choosing. As a gorgeous KGB agent, a British journalist and Hoyt’s series spy, James Burlane (Tyger! Tyger!), join the shenanigans, leading to a dramatic trip on the Trans-Siberian Express, we’re offered the most satiric of thrillers, quite unlike the other stories on this list.
Wolves Eat Dogs, by Martin Cruz Smith (2004):
Smith can justly claim at least some responsibility for stimulating growth in the number of Russian cop novels produced by Americans over the last 30 years, thanks to the celebrity of his 1981 book, Gorky Park, which introduced Moscow inspector Arkady Renko. In Wolves Eat Dogs, Renko looks into the passing of Pasha Ivanov, a billionaire businessman whose body was found 10 stories below his stylish apartment. Why would Ivanov, who’s made out like a bandit, literally, in the “New Russia” of cutthroat capitalism, take his own life? More curious yet, why would he leap from his window with a salt shaker in hand? Police higher-ups are upset that Renko won’t just declare this a suicide and move on, so they’re pleased to hear that Ivanov’s senior vice-president has been found in the Ukraine with his throat slit. It gives them an excuse to send Renko on an apparent wild goose chase, off into the “radioactive wasteland” surrounding Chernobyl, the site of a notorious 1986 nuclear disaster. Yet in that bizarre place Renko finds not only scavenging opportunists and despondent scientists, but also a sexy, damaged physician and clues to these killings held by defiant villagers.
A Cold Red Sunrise, by Stuart M. Kaminsky (1988):
Although best known for his series about 1940s Hollywood private eye Toby Peters, the prolific Stuart M. Kaminsky penned, too, 16 terrific books starring Moscow police detective Porfiry Rostnikov, a dogged officer who’s distrusted by his superiors, due to the fact that doesn’t always follow procedures. The Edgar Award–winning A Cold Red Sunrise sends this 50-something sleuth to a small Siberian village, charged by the KGB with figuring out the icicle-slaying of a corrupt commissar. Simultaneously, he’s to ignore the murder of a dissident’s daughter, even if he believes the two crimes are connected. While struggling against imminent failure, Rostnikov comes to believe that some people would rather he stay in the frozen east forever.
It’s rather surprising how many top-drawer Russia-set crime and thriller novels there are from which to choose. Beyond those mentioned above, search out: Murder at the Red October, by Anthony Olcott (1981); Death on the Nevskii Prospekt, by David Dickinson (2007); Kolchak’s Gold, by Brian Garfield (1974); The House of Special Purpose, by Christopher Hyde (2004); The Darkening Field, by William Ryan (2012); Archangel, by Robert Harris (1999); Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller (2011); Death and the Penguin, by Andrey Kurkov (2001); The Child Thief, by Dan Smith (2013); To Kill a Tsar, by Andrew Williams (2010); Volk’s Shadow, by Brent Ghelfi (2008); and The Blind Run, by Brian Freemantle (1985).