Solving Moscow's mysteries

SUN JOURNAL

Books: Mixing fiction with fact, a former police officer chronicles the adventures of Russia's most popular detective, Anastasia "Nastya" Kamenskaya.

July 07, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Ever since the police investigator Porfiry Petrovich used subtle psychology to probe the conscience-stricken hero of Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment, the brainy Russian detective has been the stuff of literary legend.

Today, there is a new twist on an old tradition. In post-Soviet Russia, the heir apparent to this legacy is not, like Porfiry, a St. Petersburg man. She is a Moscow woman, Anastasia "Nastya" Kamenskaya.

The fictional character is a colonel in the modern Moscow police force. She can be both as gentle as a breeze through a wheat field and as hard as the stones in Red Square. (Her name is derived from the Russian word for stone.)

Attractive and brainy, she worries about her weight and coolly outwits the blindly macho police bureaucracy. She never carries a gun on duty but likes to meditate as she squeezes off rounds at the firing range.

Just as remarkable as Nastya is her creator, Marina Alekseyeva. The 45-year-old mystery writer was, until she retired a few years ago, a lieutenant colonel in the Moscow police's elite Criminal Investigation Division.

Writing under the pen name Aleksandra Marinina, Alekseyeva has produced two dozen novels about Nastya, selling more than 30 million books in Russian and a half-dozen other languages. She's been called the "queen of the Russian mystery novel" and ranked by one publication as one of Russia's most influential people.

But she is almost unknown in the United States, where she has not been able to find a publisher. The problem, perhaps, is that American readers may have a hard time identifying with her protagonist and alter ego, Kamenskaya. She quietly solves crimes that stump her macho male colleagues with her quick wits and insights into human psychology. But she does not try to challenge the customs and values of her male-dominated society.

The character appeals enormously to Russian women, the bulk of her readers. They say they appreciate Nastya's vulnerability - her self-doubts and ability to identify with victims and criminals - and her toughness.

"I like the fact that she has a man's mentality, a man's analytical mind," says Ludmilla Blinova, a 40-something secretary, who says she has read almost all of Alekseyeva's 25 books. "But she has a woman's character. People like her, and she is feminine."

Through her novels, Alekseyeva has helped chronicle the devastation of Russian society after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. While murder and other sensational crimes were rare under the old communist police state, they multiplied through the 1990s as criminal gangs fought over economic spoils.

Politically connected crime bosses escape unpunished, in real life and Alekseyeva's books. But at least in the author's novels, Nastya always figures out who did it and why. In real-life Russia, things are generally a lot murkier.

Alekseyeva's knack for capturing the Zeitgeist can seem a little spooky. In a popular 1998 novel, Men's Games, she invented a string of seven grisly murders that Nastya's boss at 38 Petrovka St. - headquarters for Moscow's Criminal Investigation Division - insisted were the work of a serial killer. Nastya discovered the crimes were contract killings ordered by government officials bent on sowing terror and seizing control of the Kremlin in the elections of 2000.

A year later, someone bombed two apartment buildings in Moscow and another in southern Russia, killing more than 300 people. Former Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky, a fugitive business tycoon, has blamed Russia's security agency for the bombings, saying they were staged to whip up public support for the presidential campaign of President Vladimir V. Putin.

In an interview in her agent's office in an affluent northeast Moscow neighborhood, Alekseyeva appears wearing fashionable glasses, her trademark blond hair tied back in a bun. She says her intricate plots always start with a simple idea.

Sometimes, the inspiration comes from a conversation, a scene from a film or maybe a newspaper story. Whatever its source, she reworks the details - especially if the story is true.

"In life, it is much more boring than it is in books," she says.

One novel is based on newspaper accounts of a desperate Russian woman who threw her children out the window of a high-rise and then committed suicide by jumping. Alekseyeva built the story into a mystery, but one with a twist on the original story.

Another time, Alekseyeva saw a television show about a teen-age girl who wanted revenge for the death of her family and sought help from a middle-age hit man. What if the roles were reversed, she wondered.

Inspired, she wrote a story of an 80-year-old woman's relationship with a young drug addict. Alekseyeva isn't coy about mining her personal life for her work. Of course, she shrugs, she bases characters on friends and acquaintances.

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