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Sam Spade, meet Chief Inspector Stalin

Forget Sam Spade, his feet propped on the desktop of his office as he sips scotch and waits for the next blond to teeter in in search of a missing husband. Or Philip Marlowe, chain-smoking in a seedy hotel room as he slaps around a blackmailer. Certainly ignore all those pasty-faced CSI nerds.

Stalin2 The new face of hard-boiled crime fiction is craggy and slavic, drinks not whiskey but vodka and knows the back alleys of Moscow rather than the wharves of San Francisco. It belongs to a secret policeman surprised to find himself following a trail of mutilated children rather than a furtive dissident. Or two thieving soldiers dodging cops, cannibals and Nazi artillery as they slither around a wrecked city in search of black-market eggs for their angry commander's daughter. Or a criminal investigator
shimmying down a rope into a mine shaft to find himself gazing at the mummified face of
his old boss, Russia's last czar.

In a startling development in an industry generally guided by the fundamental marketing principles that American readers are dim, narcissistic and can't find Montana, much less another country, on a map, the hottest setting for suspense novels is 6,000 miles and 75 years from here: the Soviet Union in the days of Joseph Stalin.

• Tom Rob Smith's Child 44, which follows one of Stalin's secret policemen as he faces
the impossible task of tracking a serial killer in a communist country where crime is
officially considered to have disappeared along with capitalism, was a 2008 bestseller
that's now scheduled for the Hollywood blockbuster treatment. Last year's followup, The
Secret Speech, was the first crime thriller in which a Nikita Khrushchev speech was a principal
character.

• St. Martin's has ordered a first printing of 125,000 of William Ryan's The Holy Thief, a startling figure for a first-time author, and is backing it with an equally muscular publicity campaign. Set at the height of Stalin's murderous purges that took millions of lives in the 1930s, the book features hero is a Moscow cop who discovers the killing he's investigating is anything but a routine underworld act of vengeance.

• Sam Eastland's Eye of the Red Tsar has the unlikeliest of heroes: Pekkala, once the most feared of Czar Nicholas Romanov's police investigators, now a half-mad inmate of a Siberian labor camp. But the same Soviet government that sent Pekkala to die on the frozen tundra rehabilitates him to help find the hidden riches lost when the czar was murdered. Since it was published earlier this year, Eye of the Red Tsarhas been sold for translation in 14 other languages, and Bantam already plans at least four more Inspector Pekkala novels.

"Stalinist Russian is a gold mine for writers of crime fiction," says Eastland, a pseudonymous British writer living in New England. "The era itself has gone down as a crime against humanity, with Stalin killing millions and millions of people. . . . There's a kind of perverse pleasure in diving into such a morass of disreputable people. You can't document 10 million murders. It boggles the mind. But you can document just one." Read my full story on Stalinist crime-writing in Sunday's Miami Herald.

 

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