When Jo Epstein’s émigré stepfather, Nikolai, is suspected of murder and flees to Moscow, Jo jumps on a plane to follow him. For an intrepid private investigator like her, this was another high-speed chase set far from New York’s West Side Highway. For the author, it was a chance to accompany my protagonist onto foreign soil in order to see Russia through her eyes. It resulted in a whirlwind research tour, with Jo and me relying on our instincts to ferret out what mattered most.
Fresh off the train from Moscow, we were escorted through the prison yard at Vladimir Central Prison and up the stairs to a museum proudly exhibiting the works of formerly incarcerated Russian writers. The sense of Russian irony was compounded by the fact that, directly across the hall from a display of 19th century instruments of torture, we found an art therapy class in progress. Our guide proudly related how today’s guards and prisoners are encouraged to express themselves through painting. While she spoke, my imagination ran wild. What if Jo were incarcerated in a dank cell with graffiti-covered walls in an attempt to prevent her from finding Nikolai?
The thing about traveling alongside a fictitious character is that everything you experience is potentially part of her story. In Suzdal, we visited a monastery with an underground cell where heretics both religious and political were once tried in secret—and yes, this history-packed locale eventually served as a setting for a pivotal scene in the book.
Jo and I then toured a Matryoshka Factory, with spinning lathes and woodchips flying. Little did the skilled workmen and talented women painters know that their nesting dolls would one day hold clues to a mystery spanning two continents.
Back in Moscow, we dined at a Georgian restaurant with a Commander in the Moscow Criminal Police. He waxed nostalgic for the vory v zacone – thieves-in-law— famed for their strict code of conduct. To my surprise, he expressed regret that the brutal yet consistent rules of the vory were not followed by the modern Russian Mafia. I consulted with the Commander about my antagonist’s background and planned course of action. That he chose to bless my storyline was definitely a high point of the trip.
With only 20 words of Russian between us, Jo and I were hard pressed to decipher the Cyrillic signs in the impressive Moscow subway. We worked out a deciphering system worthy of a spy novel—perhaps to be used in her next adventure.
I’ve always been a believer in recycling and repurposing and this inclination got a workout in Russia. Even the apartment we stayed in, which was once a Soviet-style, communal residence, became a setting for a scene in RUSSIAN RECKONING.