G. D. (Garry) Abson’s first book is a cracking crime novel, set in contemporary St Petersburg and shaped around the character of a maverick female detective, Natalya Ivanova.
In Abson’s portrayal of Russia, for ‘maverick’, read ‘not corrupt’. Ivanova’s efforts to solve crime —in this case the disappearance of a young woman— are hindered as much by obstructive, careerist, regime-loyal colleagues as they are by the normal stuff such as lack of evidence and the deceptive nature of the criminal class.
One strap-line we have seen used for Motherland goes like this.
As well as Martin Cruz Smith’s Renko series —into its fourth decade and ninth novel (The Siberian Dilemma, 2019) — there are a number of other Russia-based detective series. Most of these end up being compared in some way to the opener in the Arkady Renko series, the genre-defining Russia in Fiction detective novel, Gorky Park (1981).
The prolific Stuart Kaminsky’s Inspector Rostnikov series racked up 16 novels between 1981 and 2010, alongside about 50 other books by the same author without a Russian setting. Russia in Fiction has reviewed the first in the Rostnikov series (Death of a Dissident, 1981) and plans to review the last (A Whisper to the Living, 2010) at some point.
Donald James has got a fair amount of coverage on this blog recently, including mention of his Inspector Konstantin Vadim trilogy —Monstrum (1997), The Fortune Teller (1999), and Vadim (2000).
And most recently, Ben Creed has, like G.D. Abson, set a detective series in St Petersburg; though in his case it is the Leningrad era, more precisely, the early 1950s. The first in the Revol Rossel series, City of Ghosts (2020), was published last year. Its follow-up, Traitor’s Heart, was touted for publication next month, but that has now been put back to April 2022.
[Update: Traitor’s Heart has now been published. We’ve read it and enjoyed and will review it].
Three things make G. D. Abson’s series —two books along at the time of writing, Motherland (2017) and Black Wolf (2019)— stand out: namely, its clear Putin-era setting, its St Petersburg location, and the fact that its detective is a woman. This latter aspect is, so far as we know, unique so far in the pantheon of Russian detectives in English language fiction, but is very much of our time in the wider detective genre. Russia in Fiction particularly has in mind David Young’s excellent Stasi books, set in Communist East Germany and featuring Oberleutnant Karin Müller.
(The author of the Russia in Fiction blog bumped into David Young on the terraces at a football game a few years ago — in 2016, just after Stasi Child had been published— when we had an interesting pre-match conversation about writers and royalties.)
Back to Motherland; it is a terrific debut with good characterisation, a sufficiently complex plot, an unexpected dénouement, and —the main thing for the purposes of this blog— some great Russia-related elements.
Abson’s take on Russia, according to the acknowledgements at the end of Motherland, stem partly from an insider in the St Petersburg police force, and partly from three well-known books about corruption in Russia: Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (2015) by the late Karen Dawisha; journalist Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (2016), and businessman Bill Browder’s Red Notice (2015). (This latter being a rare example of the oh-too-common Silhouette, Red Square cover being used on a work of non-fiction).
If these are your literary sources, then you are going to get a very particular view of contemporary Russia.
Abson’s research on Russia and its politics does go beyond such sources. A few examples illustrate. There is the senior detective, Colonel Vasiliev, who wears a ‘United Russia’ pin badge as a fake display of loyalty to the Putin regime but conceals in his wallet ‘an ancient piece of card’, his membership of one of the ‘early pro-democracy movements’.
Vasiliev’s action is straight out of the cognitive dissonance school of thought, common to understandings of late Soviet society and resurrected in the 2019 book by journalist Joshua Yaffa, Between Two Fires, which he in turn bases around Yury Levada’s concept of ‘the wiley man’, cooperating to some extent with the regime in order to succeed in life whilst at the same time maintaining an inner distance from it.
As Colonel Vasiliev puts it, whilst tapping his United Russia badge
‘How could I join the party of crooks and thieves for God’s sake? I’m a policeman.’MOtherland, Chapter 32
Those who know Russia today will immediately recognise the phrase ‘the party of crooks and thieves’ coined by now-jailed opposition politician Alexei Naval’ny to describe the party of power in Putin’s Russia.
Insights like this, and there are many of them, display Abson’s awareness of contemporary developments in Russia. His lead detective, sceptical of the regime, is at one point warned that she shouldn’t believe everything she reads in Novaya Gazeta (though, disappointingly for Russian language pedants like us, Abson calls it ‘the Novaya Gazeta’).
Natalya Ivanova gets dispirited at ‘a fake documentary about the rise of fascism in Ukraine’ on TV. She hates the way the news media in Russia consistently return to blaming immigrants and foreigners and liberals and gays and the EU and NATO and Britain and America, and never
‘the incompetents who were too busy robbing the country to run it properly’.Motherland, Chapter 23
Ivanova hides these feelings in public, but, once in her car, puts on a CD by the rock group Leningrad at full volume as she drives along, and joins in with their über-sweary lyrics at the top of her voice.
In tandem with Ivanova’s despair at the politics of Russia is her related frustration with corruption and the oligarchs. A couple of examples illustrate. There is the exchange with a sympathetic interlocutor
‘You know what they say about the oligarchs?’ ‘What?’ ‘Never ask how they made their first million.’Motherland, Chapter 19
And then the observation that we have not come across before but presume has some basis in truth, namely that there is an app for mobile phones that calculates the appropriate bribe to offer for a traffic violation.
The other common, very second-decade-of-the-21st-century, Russia-related trope that recurs several times in Motherland is the effect of Western sanctions on Russia, both in terms of the absence of goods —
‘Is it all gone? … The Parmesan? The real stuff from Italy? I heard you had some.’Motherland, Chapter 2
And in the form of alternative goods —
the smoked Odessa sausage he was tucking into was made from animal skin and soya; at the onset of winter, the windscreen cleaning fluid he had bought would freeze in his Mercedes; and most alarmingly, the bottle of Slavyanovskaya mineral water exceeded alpha radiation limits.Motherland, chapter 10
Abson writes well and, even though, as in most contemporary crime novels, there are some fairly hard-hitting scenes, he has a light touch on occasion too. Russia in Fiction chuckled, inappropriately we are sure, at the banter amongst police colleagues when one of the suspects is a Swedish citizen —
‘Swedish you say?… Like Abba and IKEA. Where we park our submarines.’Motherland, Chapter 7
Or there is the sort of casual complaining about the President which occurs when Ivanova is visiting a potential witness in her apartment, with the television blaring away
Natalya looked at the programme. A woman with bright pink lipstick who bore a closer resemblance to a porn star than a TV presenter was explaining why she wanted the president to be her boyfriend. The image on screen cut to show Vladimir Putin inside a mini submarine off the coast of Crimea
‘He runs around with his chest out, telling everyone what a tough guy he is … but he wants to make Russia great again and there are some things you can’t argue with’ …
There were open boxes of matrioshka dolls by the wall unit and Natalya guessed she sold them to tourists to supplement her pension.
‘You want to buy one?’ The old lady picked up a doll. ‘Do you see? Our leaders. All bald then hairy, bald then hairy, all the way back to Peter the Great. There are only seven in that set. It doesn’t sell because it stops at Andropov and no one remembers him. I’ve also got Harry Potter and Disney princesses – they do much better.’MOtherland, chapter 4