Russia is a complex and fascinating country and, after thirteen years of experience working in Russia, I still have much to learn about its culture and its peoples. It has become clear to me that reading books on Russian history, politics and economics, while interesting to me because of my training as an historian, is not enough to understand the deeper issues facing this society. Especially for Westerners, developing an understanding of Russian culture and Russian society requires familiarity with its rich literary tradition.
The richness of Russia’s literary heritage is well known; most college-educated Americans have at least some acquaintance with the writings of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gogol, and possibly 20th century writers such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Boris Pasternak. But I have discovered another valuable resource – detective novels, especially detective novels written by Stuart Kaminsky.
Kaminsky is a prolific American writer who has written a number of detective series, including stories based in Chicago and in Hollywood, but my favorite books written by him are about Porfiry Rosnikov, an inspector in Moscow.
The Author: Stuart Kaminsky
Kaminsky has written fourteen books in the Rostnikov series and I have read them all. The first book (Death of a Dissident) came out in 1981 and the last one (Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express) in 2001. Kaminsky’s interest in Russia came from his family – all of his grandparents were born in Russia and he heard many tales about the country as he grew up. This family background, plus his interest in literature, especially classical Russian literature of the 19th century, shaped his own plans to launch his career as a novelist.
His detective stories have a “Russian accent” because of his deep knowledge of Russian literature and Russian literary styles. But they are also good detective stories and here the influence of his favorite American detective writer, Ed McBain, is evident. It is therefore no surprise that the central figure in his story, Inspector Rostnikov, loves McBain novels as well.
Inspector Rosnikov works in Moscow and, while some of the novels take him to other locations, most of the books deal with life in the Russian capital city. When I began to read these books, I was especially drawn to these stories because many of the places he describes are places I know. For example, when writing about the Moscow Metro system, he will often provide background information about the subway system and its construction. I was amazed to later read that he had written many of these books before ever personally visiting Russia himself.
The Key Personalities
The books in this series cover the last years of Brezhnev’s rule and the turbulent years of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Kaminsky’s stories give insights into how the Russians lived through all of the turmoil of the transition out of Communism. While the emphasis is on the underside of Russian society, the seedy side that detectives deal with, the reader gains an appreciation for how Russians survive on a daily basis.
The main character, who you will be drawn to, is Porfiry Rostnikov, a man of action who bears the name of the magistrate who drives Raskolnikov to confess his murder in Dostoevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment. Kaminsky admits that he also fashioned this detective after his fantasy of his Russian grandfather who died when Kaminsky was six years old. Rostnikov is a determined, pragmatic man who loves his job, his wife, his son, and his country, but has also learned to challenge the criminal justice system in which he works that is so full of contradictions and political pressures. He is a man with a sense of humor that is peculiar to Russians.
One of his assistants is Emil Karpo, a tall, gaunt, loyal, humorless traditionalist who has a deep loyalty to the religion of Communism and, despite the fact that his belief in Communism has repeatedly failed him, he devotes his life to the pursuit of lawbreakers. The third member of the team is Sasha Tkach, a handsome young Russian caught in the complexities of Russian society, where domestic pressures of an overbearing mother and a sensitive wife, crammed together with him in a small Moscow apartment, make life a struggle. As Kaminsky noted, Rostnikov lives for the present, Karpo lives for the past, and Tkach lives for the future.
A Final Note
If you decide to read one or two books in this Kaminsky series, I would encourage you to begin at the beginning. I say this because you will become attached to the three detectives and their personal stories and, because the stories build on each other and the three families experience changes, you will appreciate them more if read in sequence. Any good Internet search engine will quickly lead you to a full listing of these fourteen novels. I have gained insights about life in Russia from these books, plus I like a good story – and Kaminsky writes good detective stories! I am waiting impatiently for the next one.