Fresh Blood

Name: G.D. Abson

Title of Book: Motherland

'Abson has a wonderful eye for landscape, and very quickly he transported me to the streets of St. Petersburg...'

Student Zena Dahl, the daughter of a Swedish millionaire, has gone missing in St Petersburg (or Piter as the city is colloquially known) after a night out with a friend. Captain Natalya Ivanova is assigned the case, making a change for Natalya from her usual fare of domestic violence work, but, because of the family's wealth, there's pressure for a quick result. But as she investigates she discovers that the case is not as straightforward as it may seem.

There are very few books when you read it and feel ‘this can’t be happening’, especially in a world we are supposed to know with all the media coverage we are exposed to. However, Abson manages to make Russia feel not only as though it is a different country, but an entirely different world.

I have read le Carré’s early work and it is sad that not only do things behind the Iron Curtain appear to have remained as underhand, but if anything, got worse. Every character here either feels they have to watch their back, or fight a rigid regime of sexism and prejudice. In particular with Detective Natalya Ivanova whose main crime is being a woman… and worse, a woman in the police force! As can be expected, this leads to a lot of tension, including her own household where she lives with Mikhail who is also a police officer. She even gets messages from colleagues via her husband as the thought of communicating with a woman officer is too much for them! Out of this Abson has a plethora of material, showing Ivanov as a strong, determined woman in a male-chauvinistic world. Don’t get me wrong that Ivanov is not a delicate butterfly – she can pull rank when she feels the need.

Abson has a wonderful eye for landscape, and very quickly he transported me to the streets of St. Petersburg quick as a flash. He also has a good ear for dialogue and for portraying well-rounded characters. The plot focussing on Zena’s abduction is a slick machine, never flagging and I was rooting for Ivanov as she neared the truth (which she nearly lets slip through her fingers), to produce a number of revelations just before the final page.

This is dark, gripping stuff and I look forward to being in Captain Natalya Ivanov’s company once again with all her male cohorts – even the fat, lazy, misogynist Rogov who I feel has a slight admiration for Ivanov – although you’d have to remove his fingernails before he’d admit any such thing! ‘Motherland’ is a stunning, assured debut which kept me riveted!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) Do you have any connections with Russia and is that why you based your novel there?
Originally my interest in Russia was as a student. When the “Protect and Survive” leaflets were going through every letterbox in Britain I was learning Russian history at school. Nearly a decade later, and I was studying Russian politics while the Soviet Union was collapsing.

Russia has all the elements for a deep, dark crime novel – at the top there’s the FSB, a world class mafia, and stupendously wealthy oligarchs creating the murkiest politics around. For ordinary people this translates as rampant corruption, TV propaganda, declining civil rights, and the threat of prison, a beating, or worse, for anyone who fights back.

Saint Petersburg – the setting for my novel – has a richer history than Moscow; built out of marshland by Peter the Great to hold its head high against any European capital. Crime and Punishment, Rasputin’s murder, the Russian Revolution…it seems that every major event in Russian history, real or imagined, occurred there. Even Vladimir Putin learned to fight dirty in the slums and as a corrupt assistant to the city’s first mayor.

For research I tracked down an ex-policeman from Saint Petersburg who helped me with the technical details, other “Piter” natives advised me on language and culture, and I spent days wandering around the many islands that make up the city looking for places where my characters would meet, live, and occasionally leave bodies behind.
2) Detective Natalya Ivanova is your main protagonist. How did you find it writing about a woman in a very masculine police force?
It’s not just the retrograde attitudes of her male colleagues Natalya struggles with, she rails against everything she finds incomprehensible in modern Russia – from the über-feminine women who pander to these macho men, to the bribes she has to pay to keep her stepson out of the military.

I think a woman’s point of view is more interesting to write than a macho cop’s, it’s also easier and more fun to write when there’s conflict. I asked a Russian cop about the role of women in the police force. When he was dismissive, I knew I was on the right track.
3) Putin’s Russia has been in the news a great deal in the past few months with the poisonings in Salisbury and with tensions in Syria. The usual line of Russian defence is denial. What was the feeling of people you spoke to about the direction of Putin’s government which seems to us outsiders to be going back to the past of the Cold War(s)? Is the man so revered, feared or is it more complicated?
In the countryside, people are more socially conservative, they get their news from state-controlled television, and the older ones remember the chaos of the 1990s – a key selling point of Putin’s presidency. In Saint Petersburg, however, Putin isn’t so popular. No one I spoke to held him in any kind of reverence, though there was a sense of resignation that nothing would change and political action was too dangerous.

A lot of Putin’s moves, although straight out of the KGB playbook, appear intended for home consumption than to antagonise the West. One simple reason is that – for all its bluster – Russia can ill afford to start a fight, cold or otherwise. Its GDP is below Italy’s and it has a stagnating economy made worse by sanctions, creaking infrastructure, as well as enormous social problems.
4) In ‘Motherland’ there is a lot of pulling rank amongst the police officers themselves as well as an embedded fear of the police by civilians. I thought this was something from the 60’s/70’s. Were you surprised this attitude still existed in the present?
Russia is essentially a dictatorship with elections (most modern dictatorships are) and apart from their usual roles, the police are there to defend the interests of the kleptocrats in power and maintain order. I employed some artistic license in ‘Motherland’, but from what I understand some citizens have more to fear than others: an immigrant or government protestor would have reason to be fearful.
5) You were shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger. How did it feel to get so far out of so many entries and did it open doors for you to get your debut in print?
It was a profound shock. I discovered the competition a few days before the closing date and sent off my submission thinking, well, that’s twenty quid I won’t see again.

As an unknown writer, being Dagger shortlisted meant my manuscript floated to the top of the slush pile but it was actually a drunken conversation at a cider festival that got me an agent, and from there, a publisher.
6) Are you a fan of crime fiction? If so, which three crime novels would you like with you if stranded on a desert island?
I am a CF fan, particularly of novels set in dark places. I’ve been thinking for some time about re-reading Philip Kerr’s excellent Berlin Noir trilogy and if I’m still allowed two others I’d choose Martin Cruz Smith’s ‘Gorky Park’ and ’Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. I think there’s a little bit of all of them in ‘Motherland’.

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