Writing has become the afterlife of Richard Meredith’s long and multifaceted—but mostly nonliterary—career. “I take a lot from my experiences and the people I’ve known,” Meredith explains during a recent phone call. In his retirement (so far), Meredith has authored three published books. His most recent, Maskirovka, which Kirkus Reviews calls a “taut, timely, terrific thriller,” landed earlier this year.
Before turning to writing creatively, Meredith spent time as an emergency room technician, as a corpsman in the U.S. Navy, and, for the longest duration, as a marine scientist and wildlife biologist. This work took him far afield from his birthplace of Flint, Michigan, to the Amazonian rainforests of Ecuador, the tundra and taiga of the Yukon Flats, the coral reefs of the Caribbean, and beyond. He uses his past experiences to bring life to the settings and characters he now creates in his books. For example, as an ER tech, he had the “toe-curling” occasion to see a few autopsies performed. This early experience informed the autopsy scene in Maskirovka.
Meredith has set the story close to his current home in Northern California. He starts his projects by writing a paragraph, often in response to something he has read in the news. He sees how the paragraph goes and then tries to envision who his character(s) might be. By the middle of a project, he’s usually ready to write the end. This is part of how he knows the story is working. Still, he goes through many drafts. “I’m not a writer, I’m a rewriter,” he says. For Maskirovka—part police procedural, part political thriller—the seed was an article Meredith read while doing some general research on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The oil industry, more specifically, Russia’s monopoly over this sector in Europe, forms the backdropof Maskirovka, but the narrative foreground follows Steve Nguyen, a newly fledged San Francisco Police Department detective. Nguyen is cast convincingly as a sufferer of severe social anxiety, but these inner struggles don’t keep him from sleuthing out the details of his first solo case, even after his boss has closed it. Following several plotlines over short, interlinked chapters, Meredith masterfully builds Nguyen’s world and the wider ecosystems connected to the book’s central murder victim, Luke Miller.
Miller—the unlucky discoverer of a secret report left on the copy machine at the foundation where he works—is only the first in a string of seemingly unlinked killings and accidents. When Nguyen gets too close, the gas line in his home is tripped so that when he turns on a light, an explosion is triggered, landing him in the hospital. It turns out that the Glass Foundation, Miller’s employer, rather than being the upstanding charitable organization it seems to be, is a money-laundering operation for Russian oil assets. Nguyen, with the help of his cousin Tina Ngo and Miller’s closest friend and fellow Glass Foundation employee, Jennifer Krauss, gradually put all the pieces of this moneyed puzzle together.
Meredith’s convincing use of minor characters makes this highly charged plot plausible. Tina Ngo, for example, is a cunning attorney responsible for both getting Nguyen the mental health support he needs and pulling together many of the threads that connect the murder victims, the foundation, the manipulations of politicians and activists, and Russian oil interests.
Meredith also gives detailed background descriptions of complex topics that, intertwined, make the story snap. Without these descriptions, the average reader would likely have had to pause and learn quite a lot on their own—how money laundering works or how oil is sought with sophisticated equipment, for instance. Instead, these explanations come through the characters’ dialogue and are made seamless with the narrative. It just so happens that at the very moment we need to know something, one of the characters also needs to be filled in—for example, when the Russian mastermind Anatoly Dmiriyrvich Sergov has occasion to explain the foundation’s role in funneling profits.
The novel’s detailing of the racism Nguyen faces lends the story nuance and a level of gravity that plot-heavy books sometimes lack. As previously mentioned, Nguyen is a new detective, and some on the force believe he was promoted too quickly for reasons other than aptitude for the job. Detective Barry Franks, one of Nguyen’s senior colleagues, is the lead menace. Speaking to Nguyen about his choice to join law enforcement rather than become a lawyer, as his education history suggested he might, Franks makes an implication and then offers a line familiar to anyone paying attention to the many articles and books published in the last few years which highlight White gaslighting:
“I gotta hand it to ya; it was a smart move. Lawyers are assholes and there’s way too much competition. Here you can advance just by being you, right. I mean, whoever went from patrol car direct to homicide? You got one hell of a guardian angel, or you’re checking all the right boxes.”
Nguyen lifted his gaze only to fix a glare on the obese detective. “Oh, I get it. I’m on the Asian express?”
“…You’re much too sensitive.”
Meredith reads very much “in-genre,” he says, including writers Gillian Flynn, Tom Clancy, and Jo Nesbø. That reading led Meredith to writing. “As an avid reader, I fantasized about being a writer, but I thought you’d have to have a tortured life experience—the alcoholic starving in the garret, spilling his angst on the page. And I have the opposite. I have a great life. But then I started thinking about some of my favorite writers, and their life experiences were similar to mine. Tom Clancy was selling insurance,” Meredith recalls. “I wondered what I’d write about; there was nothing special in my life. But then it hit me: It’s fiction; I can write whatever I want. And…I was able to weave some interesting life experiences into my writing.”
Meredith’s fourth novel, The Double Cross of Brigid, is drafted and in beta review. His fifth is in progress.
Sarah Hoenicke Flores is a California writer with work in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Guernica, and Literary Hub.