The Big Issue – Nick Taussig, Five Crime Novels Everyone Should Read Before They Die

“A dazzling study of mental anguish and moral dilemma” Author Nick Taussig picks his essential crime fiction reads… The Big Issue, 7 August 2013

 

1. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Following the nihilistic student Raskolnikov, this is a dazzling study of mental anguish and moral dilemma.
2. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
We’ve all seen the trilogy of films but read the original novel, stunning in its detail of the inner workings of the Cosa Nostra.
3. Papillon, Henri Charrière
First published as a memoir – the tale of a French criminal escaping from countless penal colonies – it later transpired the author was prone to fantasy and that the book was a novel after all. But what a creation.
4. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John le Carré
The master espionage writer’s third novel was brilliant, not least because you feel the writer in every sinew of his hero, Leamas.
5. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
Revel in the plot’s complexity and how Chandler leads you one way then the other. Yes, the double-cross extends to the reader also.
Nick Taussig’s latest novel, The Distinguished Assassin, is out now in hardback (Dissident, £12.99)

Independent – Five-minute memoir: Nick Taussig recalls a particularly trying trip across Russia

‘Mother Russia’ had long intrigued the author, but a journey across the country almost changed his mind… The Independent, 3 August 2013

A lifelong student of Russian literature – no one wrestles with the shadow self quite like a Russian novelist – it was perhaps inevitable that I would write a novel profoundly Russian in character, and that in order to write it I’d first have to travel Mother Russia’s length and breadth, from Moscow to Magadan.

This preoccupation, with the likes of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn, was likely inspired first, by my Slav background – my grandparents Central European Jewish émigrés – and second, by my Czech wife, who like so many had the great privilege of living under Soviet Communism, this quintessentially Russian creation.

For only the Russians were willing to submit themselves, for quite so long, to such a contemptible system, to live according to a single prescribed ideology, which claimed to offer a lifetime of perfect Communist harmony but actually provided the very opposite, a lifetime of hardship, frustration and dread. Why was this? The answer surely lay in a Russian pilgrimage, I concluded.

Moscow I could handle on my own, I thought, though for the rest of the journey, to Siberia and beyond, I’d need a fellow pilgrim, and crucially one who spoke more Russian than I did. I was very fortunate here. My father, a passionate historian, linguist and former director of foreign language services for BBC World Service, agreed to accompany me, and what proved most valuable, when the odyssey got difficult, which it did, was less his above credentials and more the man himself – his great, indefatigable, big-hearted, fiercely intelligent and slightly mad (but in the best possible way) spirit. Without him, Mother Russia would have got the better of me.

Things got tricky in Moscow after just three days, when I was suddenly, and rather unceremoniously, accosted by two men while taking pictures of the Lubyanka, the former headquarters of the KGB. Dressed in dark suits, the two men, whom it transpired were FSB (Federal Security Service) agents, had bounded towards me, and before I quite knew what was happening, took me by either arm, and without saying a word, marched me through an underpass. They held me outside a side entrance to the main building of the FSB, while a third man, having confiscated my passport, ran checks on me inside, sure that I was a British spy. The two agents, big, bolshy Slavs, said nothing, simply stood guard over me like two great Russian oaks. Only after 40 minutes, when their colleague returned, did they release me, having deleted every photo I’d taken, their parting words, “Fuck off!”, spoken in perfect English.

What I immediately gleaned from this experience is that the country remains insular, suspicious and authoritarian, having placed far too much power in the hands of its security services. Perhaps the Russian people are predisposed to live under strong authority, I wondered, and thus accept the terrible abuses of Putin’s authoritarianism, just as they did Soviet Communism.

The flight from Moscow to Magadan, some 5,500km east, was nine hours, yet this did not include the stopover in Bratsk, where we were herded like cattle into a dingy brown Soviet-era waiting room and instructed to wait, for how long it was unclear. After three hours, my father had the gall to ask an airline attendant, “When might we be on our way again, do you suppose?”. His question met with the curt, officious answer, “Soon!”. No more was offered. In Russia, the customer is not always right. We finally boarded again, and when we arrived in Magadan were exhausted, this compounded by the fact that we had flown across eight time zones but were still in the same country.

We had not booked a place to stay in advance – my failing – and so trawled Magadan’s few hotels in search of a spare room. None could accommodate us, but for the last. We were taken to our rooms – designated for non-Russians. My father smiled wryly, as both of us shuffled wearily into our respective abodes. He clearly foresaw what was in store, and well, we were not to be disappointed. The wallpaper was peeling, the plaster cracked, the furniture dilapidated, the bathtub Stalin-era – little more than a urinal – the room fit for a fugitive and no more. It was, like the airline attendant, Bratsk Airport, the two FSB agents and Moscow itself, grim, colourless and indifferent. I sat down on the poorly sprung bed, then heard my father howl with laughter. “The pilgrimage is complete. What better view of the troubled Russian soul than this, comrade. How they’ve made us suffer!”

Nick Taussig’s latest novel, ‘The Distinguished Assassin’, is out now

independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/fiveminute-memoir-nick-taussig

Marcel Berlins reviews The Distinguished Assassin in The Times

The Distinguished Assassin is Professor Aleksei Klebnikov, banished to a Gulag labour camp in 1949 on trumped-up charges. Set free in 1952, he becomes a hitman for a gangster, assigned to murder six brutal, highly placed Communist officials. Klebnikov’s ultimate aim is to kill the man responsible for his captivity and who, he believes, seduced his wife in his absence. The story is told in alternate chapters covering his time as prisoner and after his release. Through Klebnikov, the plight of the Russian people under Stalinist rule is grippingly demonstrated. Taussig’s style – short on dialogue and long on descriptions and Klebnikov’s thoughts –takes a bit of getting used to, but turns out to be effective for the passionate political and emotional content of his novel.”
Marcel BerlinsThe Times

The Times – 8th June 2013

Putin, a modern day Stalin

Masha Gessen, the Russian journalist, wrote a very important book last year, published by Granta in the UK. The Man Without a Face is a devastating portrait of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, a man who, when he took power of Russia in 2000, swiftly dismantled the young mechanisms of democracy put in place by his drunken predecessor Yeltsin and ruthlessly silenced all critics, be this through repressive legislation, forced exile or murder. The former KGB man was not interested, despite the vein hopes of the West, in being a new Russian leader, open and democratic, instead wanted to rule his country with total control, of the authoritarian not the totalitarian kind. To this extent he aspired less to a Soviet hero such as Brezhnev, and more to one such as Stalin.

The democracy of twenty-first century Russia is, in truth, nothing more than a façade, an illusion, just as the utopia of Stalin’s Russia was, where all Russians, rather than living and working in perfect Communist harmony, lived in abject poverty and dread. Putin, like his great ancestor Stalin, has little concern for the will of people – what they want and need. Rather he cares only for himself and the power of the state he wields total control over, which he will serve, as he did the Soviet state, until the bitter end. Communism collapsed because the people had had enough of this state, which was utterly indifferent to them, hindering them and diminishing their happiness when it had claimed to be doing quite the opposite. Yet Putin’s state, this new state he moulded out of the debris of the old Communist one, is the very same.

Vladimir Vladimirovich, a moody bugger like his monstrous precursor Stalin, expects gratitude from his people for his dedication, his loyalty to Russia and her people. His surly face, like Joseph Vissarionovich’s, conveys a man who should be leader because he knows best, what’s best for the Russian people, and that, despite the great demands of the job, he is making this enormous sacrifice for his people, a sacrifice which includes accumulating vast personal wealth. Stalin might have had a propensity for criminality, which included raising money for the Bolsheviks through bank robbery, kidnap and extortion, but Putin has proved himself a master of it, the boss of bosses, according to Gessen. “Like all mafia bosses, he [has] amassed wealth by outright robberies, as with Yukos, by collecting so-called dues and by placing his cronies wherever there was money or assets to be siphoned off. By the end of 2007, at least one Russian political expert estimated Putin’s personal net worth at $40 billion.” Putin might have labelled certain oligarchs thieves, yet he is perhaps the greatest thief of all. He robs the Russian people not only of their wealth but also their freedom.

But the greatest likeness between the two lies in the image both men cultivated of themselves, which was, and is, so at odds with the truth. There is a cult of personality around Putin too, who, like Stalin, has cast himself in an heroic light – as a benevolent father, brave warrior, wise leader and compassionate man. What one should see, however, is the very opposite – a cruel, cowardly, vain and ruthless one obsessed with personal gain and no more.

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Screen heroes under totalitarian rule

Totalitarianism is a political system in which the state holds total authority over society and seeks to control all aspects of public and private life where necessary. It is an appalling political system to live under, and yet its exploration and depiction in film can make for great cinema. Why? Because, from a dramatic standpoint, there is nothing better than pitting a decent, lone hero against a cruel, uniform power. At first the latter seems unbreakable, on account of the sheer extent of its cruelty, yet slowly, the former’s courage and persistence exposes its cracks, until finally the power breaks under the sheer weight of the hero’s righteousness.

Two films that powerfully portray this struggle, of a good man opposing a bad system, are Burnt by the Sun and The Lives of Others. Both do so, not in the often improbable Hollywood vein of the hero suddenly being in possession of a special set of skills which means he can defeat the cruel system single-handedly, but rather in the spirit of knowing what it really is to live under such a regime, where the individual is made utterly subservient and resistance can only be expressed in the seemingly smallest of actions, be this refusing to give a confession or deliberately obstructing an investigation. One is from the Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov, who lived under Soviet Communism, the other from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose parents lived under East German Communism.

The former’s protagonist, Colonel Kotov, an old Bolshevik war hero, is hunted down by his wife’s ex-lover, an NKVD agent intent on having him confess that he is a terrorist who wanted to murder Stalin. The latter’s protagonist is Gerd Weisler, a secret Stasi officer who is assigned by his superior to spy on a prominent playwright, also a suspected critic of the regime, only to discover that the real reason he has been assigned the case is because one of the regime’s leaders covets the playwright’s girlfriend and wants her for himself.

Kotov, unlike his nemesis Dmitrii, refuses to let his dignity and humanity be taken from him. He loves his young wife and daughter to the very end, and even when confronted by Stalin’s assassins, who beat him half to death in the back of a government car, refuses to confess to a crime he did not commit. Likewise, Weisler, when he realizes how deeply in love the playwright Georg Dreyman and his girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland are, obstructs his own investigation to ensure that Dreyman is not found guilty, though he knows that this will result in him being consigned to Department M for the rest of his working life, a miserable place for disgraced agents, which he subsequently is.

Both men are heroes because both are willing to be burnt by the regimes they live under, to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Kotov resists the lies of Stalinism, and Weisler, the German Democratic Republic. Their actions, seemingly small, are in fact great. Screen heroes such as these are the real heroes of film.

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The marks of a thief-in-law

Brought to popular western culture in the contemporary film Eastern Promises directed by David Cronenberg, and now on display at the Saatchi Gallery in the post-Soviet portraits of Sergei Vasiliev, the tattoo code language of criminals in the USSR had its roots far earlier, in Stalin’s Russia, amongst the thieves-in-law (vory v zakonye) – the elite of the Soviet Union’s criminal class. Formed as a society for ruling the criminal underworld within the prison camps – necessary after Stalin had imprisoned quite so many – the thieves-in-law were utterly dominant, and marked themselves out as vory by the tattoos they wore. These tattoos displayed not only their indifference and contempt for the Stalinist system they lived under, but their defiant resistance to its cruel, repressive and hypocritical nature also. Just as Stalin had made his Communist word law, so the vory would make their criminality law also. The most common symbols of a thief-in-law were: an eight-pointed star, as seen below, worn as an epaulette or on the knee; a lozenge with an Orthodox cross inside, on a ring finger; and, a cat in a hat on the back of the hand. To carry any of the above tattoos and not be a thief-in-law was punishable by death.

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Why I wrote The Distinguished Assassin

As a postgraduate student of Russian literature at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies in 1995, I will never forget my first encounter with Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, a staggering work that powerfully, and methodically, documents the vast network of forced labour camps that existed throughout the former Soviet Union. What is most striking about this work, as much as the quality and scope of its historical record, however, is its searing honesty, its attempt to get to the heart of man. What makes him do the things he does, and how does he behave in the most adverse of circumstances?

Solzhenitsyn, like any great writer, is hunting for big game, unafraid to ask such big questions, and the conclusions he reaches, though often unsettling, normally point to some fundamental truth. And one such conclusion he reached struck me, to the extent that I could not shake it from my mind. “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various stages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.”

This statement became the starting point for The Distinguished Assassin, the story of a good man, who, when placed in extraordinary circumstances, commits evil, and is then forced to confront what he has done: he has destroyed a piece of his own heart. And what better setting than Stalin’s Russia, a place that, like Nazi Germany, heightened this truth, forcing its citizens to live and think according to a single prescribed ideology: Soviet Communism. Aleksei Klebnikov, the novel’s protagonist, cannot abide by this creed, which he, like some many Russians living under Stalin, saw to be a fabrication, a lie. The people are not living and working in perfect Communist harmony, he can see this, but rather are living in abject poverty and dread. Aleksei initially tries to point to this great deception through his teaching post at Moscow State, and yet any form of criticism of the way things are is not tolerated. He is subsequently removed from his teaching post, wrenched from his home, separated from his wife and young daughter, interrogated and tortured, then convicted of anti-Soviet activity and sentenced to twenty-five years hard labour. Put on a transport to Kolyma, worked close to death and forced to endure the suicide of his mother, who can no longer tolerate the hypocrisy and oppression all around her, he is then informed that his wife has made her bed with his nemesis, Vladimir Primakov, the MVD agent responsible for his arrest, exile and imprisonment. Thrown in isolation, Aleksei is left to rot. He emerges full of anger and hate: the line in his heart has shifted, to use Solzhenitsyn’s metaphor. He escapes from the prison camp having killed two men, a prison and a guard, then returns to Moscow, where he is confronted by his wife’s alleged betrayal. She was with his enemy after all. Thus, when offered a mission by the notorious thief-in-law, Ivan Bessonov, whom he’d befriended while in Kolyma – to assassinate six leading Communists, and therefore take revenge on those who have fed, profited from and sustained the Stalinist system – he takes it.

The hero of my novel, therefore, provided me with the precious opportunity to explore Solzhenitsyn’s conviction that every one of us is “at various stages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being, at times close to being a devil, at times to sainthood.” Aleksei is this, close to both, and yet he battles, as we all do, to ensure that the good side prevails, that he ends on the right side of the line which separates good from evil, which cuts through his heart, as it does our own.

The Distinguished Assassin