Earlier this week I read that a leading Russian journalist was murdered—shot execution style. Someone didn’t like Anna Politkovskaya’s investigative reporting, which was often critical of some very powerful people in Moscow. Politkovskaya, 48, was known in particular for her reporting on human rights abuses in war-torn Chechnya. She was killed in her apartment building by gunshots to the chest and head after a Saturday afternoon shopping trip.
My first thought upon reading the news of this assassination—which had at least some of the markings of a mob-style hit—was “Mafiya.”
I researched the Russian Mafiya extensively for "Beyond Suspicion." Like most of my Jack Swyteck novels, that story is set in south Florida. You may wonder what the connection between the Mafiya and south Florida is. Truthfully, I happened onto it by accident. I was ordering a bagel at a coffee shop and noticed that the news stand next door had a half-dozen Russian language newspapers to choose from. No, I wasn't in Moscow. I was in Hollywood, Florida, a typical suburban community north of Miami. Naturally, I had to ask: What gives?
It turns out that south Florida - known for its ethnic diversity, though usually with a Latin beat - has a sizeable Russian population. The vast majority are law-abiding, good people. But there's a dark side, too. Take Tarzan, for instance. No, not Johnny Weismüller. This Tarzan is a legendary, muscle-bound Russian mobster famous for the drug and sex orgies on his boat off Miami Beach. He's now even more famous (not to mention incarcerated) for a serious but unsuccessful scheme to buy a nuclear submarine from a former Soviet naval officer and then use it to smuggle cocaine from Colombia.
Miami has a new criminal powerhouse knocking at its gates. Brighton Beach, New York is the only place in America with more Russian mobsters - the Mafiya, as it's called..With a little help from my law enforcement contacts, I was able to find a Ukranian-born undercover agent who was willing to tell me all about it. One meeting with him, and I knew: There had to be a novel in this.
The good news is that the Mafiya is nowhere near as well organized as La Cosa Nostra. The bad news is that what they lack in organization, they make up for in utter brutality. The other interesting thing to me was that the type of illegal activity a Mafiya member might engage in was largely determined by which former soviet state he comes from. Armenians, for example, are into mail fraud. But it was the Georgians who gained my fascination as a novelist. They are the hitmen. And they are so lethal, I’m told, that the Italian Mafiya now contracts out its hits to none other than the Georgians.
So, when I read about Politkovskaya, I immediately wondered if it was a Georgian hitman who’d pulled the trigger. I don’t mean that blithely. Moments like these make you realize that the things a novelist researches and writes about, primarily in the name of entertainment, often have life and death consequences for real people. It’s a healthy reminder. Any responsible thriller writer will ask himself several times during the course of writing a book whether there is too much violence. Is this or that scene really needed? Does it advance the story or define some essential element of a character? Would the suggestion of violence, rather than the actual showing, be enough? In other words, is it merely gratuitous? Those are often hard decisions.
I try to remember people like Anna Politkovskaya when I make them.