Putin in the knife: Russia gets a grilling in new crime thriller
At long last, a fictional detective to rival Arkady Renko
It’s been a while since we’ve had a Russian detective of the calibre of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko, who first appeared in the groundbreaking 1981 thriller Gorky Park, a book which offered startling insights into the grime and corruption of the Soviet-era Moscow police department.
Now comes a contemporary to rival Renko in a terrific debut, Motherland by GD Abson (Mirror Books), which is the first of a promised series set in contemporary St Petersburg.Its protagonist is an intriguing policewoman, Captain Natalya Ivanova, who must negotiate the murk and danger of Putin’s Russia while tackling what seems, at first, to be a straightforward missing person case. The student daughter of a Swedish millionaire has disappeared in “Piter”, as the city is colloquially known, after a night out with a friend. Ivanova takes the case, grateful for a change from the usual domestic violence work she handles, but soon faces undue pressure for a quick result because of the family’s wealth. A dark and violent eyeopener into a kleptocratic and lawless nation, Motherland has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association’s Debut Dagger Award.
Asperger syndrome, or AS, is a developmental disorder characterised by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication along with certain repetitive and restrictive behaviour patterns and interests. The condition got a cultural boost of sorts with the brilliant Danish/Swedish TV crime series The Bridge, which features a Swedish detective, Saga Norén, who is suggested to have AS as she is portrayed as being oblivious to social norms but is nevertheless a highly effective police investigator.The condition was first embraced by autism professionals in 1981 after the writings of Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger were introduced to English-language audiences. Between 1993 and 2013, AS was an official diagnosis in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the US psychiatric textbook that is still consulted internationally.Who, though, was Hans Asperger? It’s a question tackled in Edith Sheffer’s superbly researched Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna (WW Norton & Company), and the answer she provides is deeply unsettling.
For decades a myth evolved that Asperger, who worked in Austria during the war, was some sort of Oskar Schindler, that he had protected his young autistic patients from programmes like the mass sterilisation of the “genetically unfit” and the mass killings of the disabled.
Basically, all of it was a lie. Among other damning evidence, Sheffer found his signature on documents transferring patients to clinics where they died of neglect, like the victims of the Life Esidimeni tragedy, or worse, lethal overdoses.
While not a Nazi party member, his career soared once more when senior Jewish doctors were forbidden from practising during the Anschluss. He was just 28 when he was appointed head of the Curative Education Clinic at the Vienna Children’s Hospital. In 1938, he worked for the Nazi state as a psychiatric expert for the juvenile court system and also applied to consult for the Hitler Youth.
CRASH COURSEAlthough we hate being told what to do, we do love advice columns. Thus the paradox that’s explored in Jessica Weisberg’s spry and entertaining social history, Asking for a Friend: Three Centuries of Advice on Life, Love, Money and Other Burning Questions From a Nation Obsessed (Nation Books).
As Molly Young, writing in the New York Times Book Review put it: “Advice columns are always directed at some other slob (or jerk or wing nut). They are stages where the humble dramas of personhood play out in letters edited and condensed for clarity. They promise utility while providing, at their best, a creamy scoop of entertainment with a scant sprinkling of moral education on top.”
Weisberg starts her account with John Dunton, the London bookseller and publisher who invented the advice column in 1691 when he launched The Athenian Society, England’s first major popular magazine. To generate contributions from readers, he guaranteed anonymity to letter writers, and he put together a panel of “experts” who weighed in on such matters as why there were spots on the moon and the ethics of wife-beating. The Athenian Society lasted six years and answered nearly 6,000 questions. By then the template had been set for centuries to come.
Two features of the genre quickly established themselves. Firstly, it wasn’t the answers that were important but the forum itself, this being a prototype of the anonymous chat room where, as Young put it, “the benighted could wonder, without judgment, whether it’s OK to masturbate. (Absolutely not.)”Secondly, very few advice columnists are actually qualified to give advice. As examples, Weisberg offers up Ann Landers and Dear Abby, two of the US’s most famous syndicated agony aunts. They were written by the Phillips sisters, twins whose parents had named them Esther Pauline and Pauline Esther.
Initially they wrote the Ann Landers column together, but then Pauline broke away to start Dear Abby and a cold war of sorts ensued. For decades the sisters viciously competed against one another, publicly sniping about one sister’s plastic surgery and the other’s writing abilities. It’s quite extraordinary to think that for decades Americans had relied on these dysfunctional siblings for behavioural guidance.
After Dunton and one or two others, Asking for a Friend deals only with US advice columnists. It’s a pity, as some of the British agony aunts, like the Spectator’s Mary Killen and the London Sunday Times Style’s Mrs Mills, are spectacularly funny at times. Here’s an example of the latter at her most bitchy:
“People move away when I talk to them, or when I take a seat in our office meeting room. Are they taking an instant dislike?” — AH, London
“Try washing on a more regular basis — first thing in the morning and again at night. Pay particular attention to your armpits.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
“Unlike my children, my books are cruelly unforgiving of my weaknesses, failings and flaws of character. Most of all, my books, unlike my children, do not love me back.” — Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins).