Moscow. The new, unlikable boss of the Moscow police insists that a string of seven grisly murders is the work of one vicious serial killer. Nastya Kamenskaya, a top detective, is less sure. Slowly, surely, working her way through murky evidence, powerful mafia informants and a daily pack of menthol cigarettes, she cracks the case: The seven victims were killed by secret service trainees for practice. It was all part of a plot by rich businessmen and corrupt officials to rig the presidential elections in the year 2000 and take control of the country. Her boss, she discovers, was part of the conspiracy.
This is the plot of "Men’s Games”, the latest bestselling thriller by the rising star of Russian crime fiction, Aleksandra Marinina. It is, in the reading, faithful to the details of how police really work, and it plays off tensions in the society around it. As with any crime novel, those are big parts of its appeal.
But at its heart, this book is pure fiction: The detective actually solves the mystery, which doesn’t happen very often in Russia anymore. For Russians, that is an even bigger part of the appeal. Frustration with a growing Russian crime problem is feeding a growing appetite for crime fiction, it seems: When real-life murderers get off scot-free, ordinary citizens seek satisfaction in a tidy, if fictional, resolution.
Actually, Aleksandra Marinina is also a fiction. It is a pseudonym for Marina Alekseyeva, a 40-year-old lieutenant colonel in Russian police department who, on the side, has become Russia’s most successful current crime writer. The author of 18 best sellers, she blends the gritty details of police procedure she picked up on the job with lurid plots and fiendish villains she dreamed up on the subway home from work.
She is not alone. There are now dozens of other Russian detective writers who have edged to once ubiquitous
translations of John Grisham and Sidney Shaldon off bookstore shelves by meeting the new and vast Russian demand for home-grown crime fiction.
What is feeding that demand is, it seems, a vast supply of real crime in Russia, and the inability of the real police to bring it under control. There were twice as many homicides in Moscow in 1997 as in New York. Newspapers relay lurid accounts of murders, kidnappings and businessmen blown up in their Mercedeses. Television is awash in tabloid-style "reality based” police dramas. The fascination with crime has even seeped into game shows: In the popular "Interception”, contestants pretend to be car thieves and try to outrun police patrol cars in a "stolen” vehicle provided by the producers. Winners keep the car.
In the midst of this crime wave, Russian prisons have become dangerously overcrowded with ordinary murderers, car thieves and low-level criminals. But the corrupt high officials, mafia chiefs and top businessmen who are suspected of orchestrating some of Russia’s most sensational murders and financial frauds never seem to get caught.
This part of Russian reality, at least, is reflected well enough in Marinina’s novels. "My heroine always solves the crime, and sometimes, my villains do go to prison”, Ms. Alekseyeva explained in an interview. "But not always – that would be too unbelievable.” In "Men’s Games”, for example, the novel ends without any clear indication of whether the bankers and officials who are the top villains will be brought to justice.
Two cases in particular dominate the Russian people’s impression of their police force’s efficiency these days. One is the murder of Vladyslav Listyev, a beloved Russian talk show host and network executive who has gunned down in his stairwell by a hired assassin three years ago. Every six month, the prosecutor general’s office announces that suspects are about to be brought to justice – then backs down and says the investigation is still under way.
THE NEWS GAP.
The other case is that of Dmitri Kholodov, an investiga –
tive reporter who has blown up in 1994 by a bomb planted in his briefcase while he was investigating corruption in Russian military. Last month, two mid-ranking army officers were arrested, but no one in Russia believes that the case will ever reach the top brass. Newspapers have failed to produce any solid investigative leads of their own.
And that could be another reason why reality-based crime novels are suddenly so popular. "So-called independent newspapers are anything but,” said Gleb Uspensky, a co-founder of Vagrius, a top Russian publishing house with its own vast roster of best-selling crime fiction authors, including Russia’s king of pulp, Victor Dychenco. And with a confusing array of party lines being followed, reflecting the business interests of the banks that own the papers, he said Russians "need someone to chew over the material for them – why Chernomyrdin glanced at Chubais that way and what it means. Newspapers don’t, but Marinina, Dychenko, they explain those nuances in their novels”
"Men’s Games”, is not a political roman a clef, but there are plenty of unsavory stock characters – a wise mafia don, ruthless bankers, corrupt officials – who are plucked from contemporary Russian society.
Real life in Russia, however, has a way of outdoing even the most outlandish fiction. Boris Berezovsky, a media and oil tycoon with close ties to the Kremlin, was the model for a villain in a fictionalized tale of political corruption and intrigue by Eduard Topol. But even Mr. Topol’s imagination fell short of the latest twist in Mr. Berezovsky’s real-life fate. The tycoon, who survived an assassination attempt in 1994 and a dozen trips to Chechnya, was recently hospitalized in Switzerland after the ultimate New Russian accident: he fell off a snowmobile.
Ms. Alekseyeva’s own success story also seems borrowed from a novel. At work, where junior officers salute her as she passes, she maintains a professional dignity. Out of uniform, she has a cheery, ladylike demeanor reminiscent of the ficti-
onal Jessica Fletcher of the TV show "Murder She Wrote”. She was an instructor at the police academy in 1991 when a friend coaxed her into collaborating on a crime short story. In 1995, she published her first novel. Her heroine, based on herself, is a plain, blunt-speaking, bookish detective who takes a more cerebral approach to crime-solving than her brawny male colleagues.
Readers, 60 percent of whom are women, have bought more than 10 million copies of her books. Last week, she signed a contract with an Italian publishing house, Piemme, for all 18 novels to be published in Italian over the next four years.
Last month, Ms. Alekseyeva submitted her resignation from the police force, though she still reports for work: "I felt it wasn’t fair. I was getting all these calls at the office, from readers, reporters, publishers and it was disrupting work at the office”.
She confessed she doesn’t really relish writing about the fine points of contemporary crime – money laundering, pyramid schemes, Swiss bank accounts – and prefers to explore the psychology and love interests of what she knows best: burned-out, corrupt police officers, mafia hoods and ruthless murderers.