Writing a Russian Detective Novel
Developing a positive Russian male role model character after decades of demographic catastrophe.
- Since 1914, every generation of Russians lost millions, mostly men, to purges & poor health.
- Russian men have been raised fatherless & aren’t the family’s “provider,” affecting their behavior.
- When I wrote my series of detective novels, I set out to create a different Russian male character.
- Imagine a Russian cop who is living on his salary and not constantly seeking bribes.
Since 1914, every generation of Russians lost millions – to two World Wars, the Civil War and Stalinist purges. Most of the dead and incarcerated were men.
In recent decades, there were fewer killings, but there was instead social disintegration, alcoholism and poor health care that brought life expectancy among Russian men to levels comparable only to war-torn sub-Saharan African states. A quarter of Russian men die before age of 55.
Those who didn’t die in the wars and purges were oppressed by the communist state. Women can sometimes voice discontent in a tyranny, but strong, brave and proud men have always been feared. They were invariably ferreted out and sent to prison.
Social disruption and anger
The result has been disastrous for the Russian manfolk. Many grew up without fathers and were raised by mothers and grandmothers. As a means of self-preservation they had to present a meek, clownish public persona.
They couldn’t play the traditional male role of providers, since the state controlled everything and set salaries at levels that required a family to have two incomes.
This is why Russian men are often childish and irresponsible. And why they take out their male frustrations on their women and those who are weaker than they are.
And why they rabidly hate homosexuals: any sexual ambiguity and a change in traditional sexual roles hit too close to home.
This has also made it difficult for Russian writers to portray a strong male character.
Their manly heroes come out too strident, too loud, too ready to show off their manhood – and never generous, which is the first and foremost sign of strength in Western culture. In Russia it is actually seen as a weakness.
When I wrote my detective series, of which two books were recently published – Murder at the Dacha (Russian Information Services, Montpellier, VT, 2013) – read an excerpt at The Globalist – and Latchkey Murders (RIS, 2015) – I set out to create a different character.
A different archetype
He has many Russian qualities – he is a Moscow cop, after all – but otherwise my Senior Lieutenant Matyushkin is fundamentally Western. He is strong and brave without being in your face or constantly showing off his strength and bravery.
He is responsible and he is gentle. He is understated and self-contained, rather than carrying on in the teenager style of a Russian male.
He is, above all – cool, a notion that barely exists in Russia.
Matyushkin is dating his neighbor, a single mother of a little boy to whom he teaches the difference between being strong and being a bully.
He loves his girlfriend and is not afraid to show it. She grew up in an orphanage and he understands her need to assert herself.
Both detective novels are set in the early 1960s. Like everyone at the time, Matyushkin lives in a communal apartment, which he shares with many other families.
He owns a war-booty German Zundapp motorcycle with a side-car, but otherwise he takes the tram like all of his neighbors. His salary is modest.
A reader recently asked me why I set my novels in the drab Soviet era and not in today’s Russia, where there is lots more money, glitter and crime, where bad guys drive Lamborghinis and arrive to Monte Carlo casinos with an expensive blonde on each arm.
That surely would have boosted sales in the English-speaking world.
Cops, bad guys, or both?
In response, I told him a story about my cousin’s husband, a New York police officer. A few years ago they were in Moscow. They were in a city park late at night.
My cousin was chatting with her friends and her husband, Keith, who knew no Russian, was drinking beer.
Eventually, he felt the need to make more room for the beer, and went to the nearby shrubbery. At that moment, a bunch of Russian cops arrived and began shaking him down for a hundred bucks.
“This guy is a cop,” my cousin told the Russians.
They didn’t believe her at first, because Keith was working undercover in Narcotics and had a ponytail in addition to his numerous tattoos.
When he did show them his badge, the Russian cops started hugging him and tried to shake the hand of a brother officer.
“Get away from me,” Keith shouted. “You’re corrupt, you shake down citizens, I don’t want to have anything to do with you.”
In fact, when an editor at a Russian publishing house read my novel, my main character amused him. He couldn’t quite believe that there could have been a cop who was living on his salary and was not constantly on a lookout to hit someone for a bribe or protection money.
Editor’s Note: Alexei Bayer’s second novel about Senior Lieutenant Matyushkin The Latchkey Murders (Russian Information Services, 2015) is now available.