Thursday, October 12, 2006


From James

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.


  1. When we heard the report my wife said, "Sounds like the KGB is alive and well."

    Aside from the mafiyah, one of the things--on a more novelistic conspiracy type of thinking--was that one of Anna Politkovskaya's targets for her criticism was Vladimir Putin. It doesn't take a huge imaginistic leap to get a former KGB agent turned president of the country to hire a mafiya-ist (or oso?) to take out the offending journalist.

    Either way, a very real, human tragedy.

    Mark Terry

  2. What a fascinating post. What's the name of your novel that deals with the Russian Mafiya?

  3. Jim, I've long been fascinated with Russia, too. Back when Crosby, Stills & Nash sang "Met a Birl in Leningrad," well, I did. She was my Finnish tour guide and led us from Helsinki to Russia. A few months later, I married her. But that, as they say, is another story.

    We visited the Hermitage Museum, and I was struck by how lax the security seemed. (This was 1974; there was still a U.S.S.R.) I imagined a story where priceless Russian artifacts were stolen from the Hermitage then used to support Castro's failing economy. That was sort of a cheesy device to get the story to Miami. The book was "False Dawn," and it's long out of print. My fond memories of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) remain.

  4. I've got False Dawn on the shelf. Isn't someone forced to EAT artwork in that one?

  5. Aha! I knew someone must have bought that book!

    Mark, you have an extraordinary memory. To get information from a bad guy named Kharchenko, a tough guy forces him to eat a Faberge flower study, stem by stem, petal by petal. The stems were solid gold, the petals were pearls circled by diamonds. (And who was it who said that diamonds are a pearl's best friends?)

    Crunch, crunch. Bon Apetit.

    It's a real artwork, by the way, a gift from Faberge to Empress Alexandra.

  6. Well, don't forget I wrote an article for The Armchair Detective called "A Miami Way of Death" about the many imaginative ways you killed people in the Jake Lassiter novels.

    Mark Terry

  7. What an interesting post. Research can sometimes go a long way.

  8. Groan. Very punny.

    It's a wonder that some novelists aren't executed, what with all their writings on organized crime and intelligence/counter-itelligence. Thank goodness the bad guys seem to enjoy their "fictiional" notoriety.

    Tom, 1000 Oaks