A complex protagonist with quite a back-story—where did the idea come from?
It started with the name—Electrifikady Turbanevich Vlost, which he quite sensibly shortens to Turbo. My first working title was Call Me Turbo. There was a time in the Soviet Union when parents in their zeal gave their children patriotic names—Len (short for Lenin), Ninel (Lenin spelled backwards), Melor (Marx, Engels, October Revolution) are some better known examples. I first encountered them in David Remnick’s book on the fall of the USSR, Lenin’s Tomb when I was getting ready to visit Russia. We all know how cruel children can be, picking on what singles out some poor kid as different, so I started thinking about one who gets saddled with a real mouthful. About the same time, I got interested in the Gulag, and I read Anne Applebaum’s heart-wrenching history, Gulag, about all the senseless betrayal, cruelty, fear, pain and death that that uniquely Russian institution represents. I was struck by the fact that many crossed the line from prisoner to guard or officer and back again, something else uniquely Russian. So I imagined how a kid saddled with the crazy name would turn out if he got the chance to move up through the nomenklatura, or privileged class, as an officer in one of its leading institutions, the KGB, having spent a good part of his childhood in the camps, especially given the shame factor of ex-inmates and that no one in Russia wants to acknowledge or face up to this aspect of their past—which makes everyone complicit. Let’s just say there’s a wealth of material for anyone who’s interested in people and their characters and motivations, which any novelist must be.
But you set the story in New York.
I thought about trying a historical novel, set in the Stalinist era, but two things intervened. The great detective novels by Chandler, Macdonald, Walter Mosley, Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard all have a strong sense of place. I wasn’t sure I could pull that off in a historical setting, and besides New York—from Brighton Beach to Fifth Avenue to the canyons of Wall Street—provides such a great backdrop. Second, I lived in London in the early 1990s and was struck by the Brits’ distant, but no less accurate, perspective of things American. They often seemed to see things more clearly than we did. So I grabbed hold of the idea of a different kind of foreigner, a former Cold Warrior coming to live in the land he spent an entire career studying and spying on. His point of view would be definitely unusual, perhaps unique.
You seem to know a lot about Russia. Where does that come from?
Research and interest. I grew up during the Cold War. The USSR was always a factor, the driving force behind America’s foreign policy, intelligence policy, military policy—how we envisioned our place in the world. Everything was a competition between us and them (and to a lesser degree the Chinese). My wife and I visited Russia a few years ago, and I was captivated by just about everything, particularly in Moscow. Transition from Soviet rule and communism was going on, as it still is today, and this makes it an enormously complex society. I did a lot of reading, I started following Russia and things Russian closely in the news. I got interested in the slang and the humor and the word-play that’s a big part of the Russian language. On some level, I guess I started thinking about how I could create a character who could embody some big part of this fascinating land and then bring him to New York.
What’s most interesting to you about Russia today?
The dichotomies and disconnects. Russia supposedly made a transition to democracy and a market economy, but that’s a myth. They have elections, but effectively it’s a totalitarian state, with the same crowd that ran the place in Soviet times still in charge. The state still plays a major role in the economy, in business, and if you believe what you read, in crime. There’s a line I read somewhere about how the KGB, now FSB, went from being a state within a state to becoming the state itself, and that rings true. Putin was quoted some years ago as saying a cadre of Chekists—KGB personnel—had been dispatched to take control of all aspects of economic, social and political life. I believe him. You also have a country that unlike some others—Germany, South Africa—has made a willful decision to avoid confronting its past. It’s very difficult to move forward on the world stage when you have millions of closets full of skeletons that keep rattling their bones, sometimes quite loudly, despite the collective attempt to ignore them. Then there are the oligarchs and the striking women and the so-called Russian Mafia, a major player in world crime. Much of cyber-crime also emanates from the former Soviet countries. It’s a mix that provides an endless stream of fodder for a writer like me.
You say Last to Fold is an updating of the classic American detective story, but your protagonist is a foreigner. Explain.
Someone said The Maltese Falcon is the first American existentialist novel or that Sam Spade is the first American existentialist hero, or words to that effect. The thing that for me defines these works—whether we’re talking Hammett, Chandler, McDonald, Mosley, Lehane, Crais or others—is the protagonist’s one-man view of the world. They do what they think is right without regard to outside influences, be they social, legal, whatever. Sam Spade’s speech to Brigid O’Shaughnessy at the end of The Maltese Falcon is probably the best encapsulation of it. Someone killed his partner and he’s expected to do something about it, regardless of consequences, even for himself. That’s just the way life works. He ends up sending his lover to jail. I thought that if I gave a guy like Turbo, with everything’s that’s already happened to him in his life, that kind of approach, that kind of self-awareness and determination, combined with a keen sense of irony and Russian fatalism, then the reader and I are going to have a lot of fun.