Crime: Means and Purpose

by n00binatorCZDetective or crime fiction can be compared to comfortable clothes. Fashion changes, but regardless of the actual trend people generally give preference to comfort, with only minor details of style really changing. The same is true for the genre of crime fiction: it is ever up-to-date as a means of both entertaining readers and expressing certain concepts. It is only minor features of style that change with time.

All in all, detective prose always provides good examples of simulating critical situations and searching for ways of solving it. This is why a quality piece of crime or detective fiction can actually substitute a visit to a shrink.


Crime as a means

Understanding this, Ukrainian authors often use the tools of detective genre as the most effective means of sharing with their reader things much more serious than simple solving the eternal problem of Who Harmed Whom and How and Why. Bearing the external characteristics of crime of action thrillers, their novels nevertheless belong to the High Literary Fiction.


Leonid Kononovych: aggressive patriotism

Leonid Kononovych’s action thrillers have gained popularity among ardently patriotic Ukrainians since 1990s. The principal character of the series is a Ukrainian man nicknamed Oscar. Heeled and armed with knuckles, he punishes criminals, who offend not merely citizens, but the state as such.

A typical criminal in Kononovych’sYa, zombi (I, a Zombie), Dovha nich nad Sunzheyu (A Long Night over the Sunzha River), Mertva hramota (Dead Chart), Detektyv dlya osoblyvyh doruchen (Detective for Special Missions), Kaidany dlya oliharkha (Shackles for a Tycoon) and Feministka (The Feminist) is a former Communist or Komsomol functionary that was a KGB informer before or still is an agent of the Russian FSB. Oscar’s private investigation style and methods of punishing criminals much resemble those of Mike Hammer, a fictional detective character from 50s’ classical crime stories by Mickey Spillane.

Kononovych shares his character’s radical patriotism, using ironic crime fiction as means of expressing his position. The fact that the author himself used to work as a private detective undoubtedly adds spice to his novels.


Vasyl Shkljar: psychology, style, eroticism

Vasyl’ Shkljar is another author for whom crime fiction genre is merely an instrument, while the aim lies beyond it. Thus, in his novel Elemental French Foreign Legion’s elite unit soldier Henry Duchan receives a dangerous secret task — to convey a Chechen politician’s daughter to France; while the Russian special services are after her (Kononovych’s A Long Night over the Sunzha Riveris set against the same backdrop). Shklyar adds adversities of love to those of war, the former being sometimes more extreme than the latter. As to the finale of the novels, it is very dramatic and quite unexpected.

Krov kazhana (Bat’s Blood) is another novel by Shkljar. The three pillars this thrilling book leans on are original detective plot, eroticism and a good deal of mysticism.

But the most iconic and influential in terms of contemporary Ukrainian literature Shkljar’s novel is undoubtedly his Klyuch (The Key), reprinted in Ukraine eight times within 10 years. The story begins with a man giving a homeless journalist the key to a spare flat in the centre of Kyiv. The owner of the flat mysteriously vanished. The journalist starts to investigate the case, finds out who the benevolent stranger is, and learns about a group of sexual deviants who killed the owner. Attentive reading reveals stylistic and psychological depth of the novel, in a certain sense even more important than its dynamic detective plot, though not at all violating or overshadowing it.


Kurkov, Rozdobud’ko, Kononenko: serious experiments in a light genre

Writing in Russian and being the most widely known in Europe Ukrainian author, Andrey Kurkov experiments in various genres. His books range from alternative history and fantasy to social satire. His novels Piknik na ldu (known as Penguin Lost in the English version) and Mily drug, priyatel pokoinika (A Matter of Death and Life in the English version) have some elements of crime fiction in them, but the only pure case of detective fiction by Kurkov is his Igra v otrezanny palets (The Case of the General’s Thumb in the English version), intentionally designed by the author as an espionage thriller. The two main characters of the book, a young Kyiv policeman and a Ukrainian special service agent, are searching for the gold of the Communist party.


Iren Rozdobud’ko is more popular among Ukrainian readers for her romantic and surrealist novels, similar to so-called ‘harlequin novels’, but the Ukrainian media would carry on calling her Lady Detective. This nickname is due to her earlier detective books Mertsi (The Dead), also known as Pastka dlya Zhar-ptytsi (A Trap for the Firebird), Eskort u smert (Escort to Dying) and Ostanny diamant miledi (Milady’s Last Diamond). The latter I would surely mark as a stand-out novel, as it is not only a very bold author’s experiment (as the plot openly alludes to Dumas’ Tree Musketeers, and even the characters’ names remind those of Dumas’ heroes), but also the purest example of crime fiction among Rozdobud’ko’s works.

Rozdobud’ko’s psychological thriller Pastka dlya Zhar-ptytsi invites the reader to take a closer look at the life of flawless, almost goddess-like businesswomen — or, rather, precious dolls scheming one against another and falling into their own traps against luxurious decorations. In Eskort u smert a series of murders is committed in the city. All the victims are young men employed by the Eskort-service agency. Their job was to accompany rich ladies for parties, theatrical shows and other events…


A writer and translator Yevgenija Kononenko is currently considered to be one of the most influential feminist author in the contemporary Ukrainian literature. Though readers won’t find feminist ideas mentioned in Kononenko’s novel Imitatsia (The Imitation), written in the genre of psychological detective fiction. Investigation of the circumstances of a famous public woman’s death under the wheels of a suburban train perfectly fits the mould of a detective story, but factually in the process the victim’s psychological profile is built — and thus rather unappealing a picture of Ukrainian intelligentsia and its way of life is revealed. Imitatsia is not really about finding out whom the murderer is — the author rather unmasks a certain social stratum’s views and practices. These views and practices, and not the actions of this or that someone, are shown to finally result in the death of a successful, though cynical young woman.

After Kononeko’s Zrada (Betrayal) was published, critics used to compare her with Francoise Sagan, Iris Murdoch and… Umberto Eco. The novel follows the path started by Imitatsia. In this thriller a young woman dies under mysterious circumstances, and her friend begins her private investigation of the case. The novel’s complicated fable deals with the global notion of betrayal — one committed against marital fidelity, parents or the state.

Yevgenija Kononenko’s Nostalgia is a three-in-one — a detective story with the unexpected ending is combined with ‘topographic’ novel, telling the tale of an old city, and nostalgic love story. The subject of the book is the investigation of two mysterious murders, committed many years before the time in which the action is set.


Crime as a purpose

Popular fiction with no claims of being anything more than easy reading designed to cure one’s boredom is also present in contemporary Ukrainian literature. The fair share of authors strives solely to entertain their reader. However, even «slick fiction» often shows capacity to reveal, softly, Ukraine’s social problems of today.


Andriy Kokotjukha: cure for boredom plus recipes of survival

Among the practitioners of the orthodox detective genre, Andriy Kokotjukha is definitely worth mentioning. His first published criminal novella Shlyubni ihryscha zhab (Mating Games of Frogs) has received stark negative reaction of those who consider themselves «serious literature» lovers. But even the seasoned critics admitted that the story of seven petty criminals stealing a million from real bandits, but unable to divide the money among themselves and constantly haunted by the bandits and police was a perfect specimen of the genre, back then new to the Ukrainian literature.

Since then Kokotjukha, who writes both in Ukrainian and Russian, has written a number of novels each precisely following rules of this or that genre. Thus, Povze zmiya (The Snake is Crawling) is a «noir» thriller, Shukachi skarbiv (Treasure Hunters) is an adventure novel, Temna voda (Dark Water) and Lehenda pro Bezgolovoho (The Legend of the Headless) are Gothic mystery novels, Udar Skorpiona (Scorpio’s Strike) is an action thriller, and so on. Critics accuse Kokotjukha of stylistic unproficiency, «telegraphic» manner of writing and his characters’ being sketchy and lacking psychological depth. But these — often quite reasonable — remarks are balanced and overbalanced by dynamic action, true-to-life depiction of Ukrainian realias today, author’s strict following the genre’s mould until the end, which is always unexpected and astonishing. Psychological depth and stylistic perfection seem odd in this cocktail.

Kokotjukha’s characters are common persons put into uncommon conditions. The author’s technique of simulating emergency situations makes it easy for readers to imagine themselves in the character’s shoes and look for ways out with him, thus learning to survive.

In addition to this, Andriy Kokotjukha carefully designs moods and themes in his novels, and creates anxiety and suspense suddenly bursting with fast-paced action. This is especially true for Temna voda, in which the main character has to solve the mystery of an old lake where a mythical monster is said to dwell and wake up once in 100 years, craving for human flesh.

Visual abundance, dynamic action and original designs of Andriy Kokotjukha’s and Iren Rozdobudko’s novels make them perfect for translating to film. Some of their books have already been adapted for motion picture.


Alla Sjerova: everyone has something to hate distractedly

Debts of the past calling for being paid back is the favourite topic of this author from Zaporizhya, the winner of the Coronation of the Word all-Ukrainian Contest of Fiction and Scripts Grand Prix (2000), who writes psychological crime fiction. Her characters are always female, as Alla Sjerova believes that women are much more complicated and thus more interesting than men. Pravyla hry (Rules of the Game), Podviyne dno (False Bottom), Duh dzhunhliv (The Spirit of Jungle) and Zabraty tyhrenya (Taking Away the Tiger Cub) are modern crime novels with all the necessary features of the genre, where a beautiful woman, armed with a killing sense of humour and recklessness, professionally gets into trouble just to get out of it triumphantly (though without even the smallest knowledge of how it should be done). Sjerova’s heroines (Red Cross doctor Tori Velychko; Eliza Klymkovska, brought up in an orphanage; Dana Yarosh, a young widow with two children) face emergencies only to successfully cope with everything, including their own complexes and traumas, and then meet a new trouble. However, the plots are not limited to this fable, serving as a mere opening. Intricate and rarely predictable action is set against a disturbingly realistic background of a Ukrainian provincial town, the Peruvian selva or that of grown-up «wolf» children’s existence, when out of a sudden they have to solve riddles dating back to their orphanage childhood.


Oleksiy Volkov: small town’s tales

One more interesting character is Oleksiy Volkov. If we consider crime fiction a kind of city legend or a fairy-story for grown-ups, then Volkov is a brilliant storyteller. Originally a surgeon, Volkov in the due time wrote Vykonavets (The Executor), a novel that has been reprinted several times and that I believe to be his best novel. The protagonist in Vykonavets, as well as in several following books by Volkov, is a doctor from a small provincial town, whose hobby is hunting. Once he faces something he thinks to be a ghost from the past; trying to find out the truth behind the apparition, he suddenly learns that his father was killed — and after all the years past since his death finds who the murderer is.

A motif peculiar of Volkov’s fiction is that of a trap and searching for ways out of it. In Vykonavets, there’s the dark basement of the abandoned house in Siberian taiga; Dniepro’s plavni in Podorozh u bezvykhid (A Trip to Despair); and a warren of caves in Den vidbutya (The Departure Day). Critics consider Amnistia dlya khakera (Amnesty for the Hacker) to be the most mature work by Volkov. Here the author puts off his favourite design of a man nailed in a trap and tries his hand at an action thriller set in Ukrainian provincial town. A death-sick man decides to square his old enemy up. Starting a dangerous game, he becomes enmeshed into the war between local mafia bosses and policemen from the homicide. Amnistia is supposedly to be adapted for film soon.


Lapikurs and Shevchenkos: retro and mystics

Valery Lapikur and Natalya Lapikur writing makes a good example of «retro» detective fiction, now fashionable in Russia. Eight detective stories incorporated into the Inspector i kava (Inspector and His Coffee) series are supposed to be based on real events. The authors claim that something very similar to what is told Pokiynyk po-flotsky (Deadman a la Navy), Poyizd scho znyk (A Vanished Train), Kava po-dyyavolsky (Devil’s Coffee) etc really took place in Kyiv in the 1970s. These happenings came to Lapikurs’ knowledge from their friend the detective, who became the protagonist of the series. Apart from being really absorbing, their books also truthfully depict the atmosphere in Kyiv of the years of the so-called Stagnation in the USSR during 1970-1980-s. When investigating crimes, in many cases the Kyiv detective finds the trail leading «up» — to the Communist Party «nomenclature» or the almighty KGB. Inspector i kava has recently been loosely adapted as a TV series.

One more author couple, Natalya and Oleksandr Shevchenko, have at first been writing «solo» sob stories (Natalya Ochkur-Shevchenko) and horror novels (Oleksandr Shenchenko). Their debut join venture has been horror melodrama Brantsi moroku (Captives of the Gloom), much influenced by Stephen King’s books and especially his The Shining. In the novel a couple bargains an old house that appears to be not a quiet and peaceful place, but a mansion of terrible ghosts. The Shenchenkos have continued with pastiches, and their crime novel Kryvava osin u misti Leva (Bloody Autumn in the City of Lion) has become quite popular among the readers. A macabre maniac is torturing women who once got rid of their unborn babies. The book is visually charged, and its plot is dynamic and intricate.


An incomplete anthology of Ukrainian crime and detective fiction

If I was charged to compose a collection of Ukrainian crime and detective prose from 1991 up to the present day, I would definitely include two thrillers by Stanislav Stetshenko: Chorna akula v chervoniy vodi (A Black Shark in Red Water) and Metelyky u sklepi (Butterflies in a Crypt) as a bonus.

Worth mentioning also is Dana Didkovska’s Obitsyau ne vbyvaty (I Promise Not to Kill) — a highly original tale of an unemployed girl who tries her hand at private investigations and out of a sudden tracks a maniac, who then appears to be her neighbour. I would also gladly include Oleksandr Medvedev’s crime action novel Criminalny romans (A Criminal Romance), in which a police field officer charged of transgressions and his old acquaintance a criminal have to flee and hide, and seek for evidence to prove they are not guilty of a murder.

I would also pay my attention to Oleksandr Vynokurov’s Pid odnym dakhom zi smertyu (Beneath the Same Roof with Death) in which a serial killer is captured with the use of theatrical masks, and the only novel by Ivan Avramov entitled Hru pochynaye pokiynyk (The Deadman Opens the Game). In Abramov’s action thriller the main character divides his time between studying the finest Kyiv diners’ menus and involving into sexual antics, nevertheless at odd moments not only detecting his uncle’s murderers, but also unmasking criminals holding an illegal call house where underage girls have to please influential politicians.

At the same time, as I have already mention above, Ukrainian «boredom-curers» anything but avoid pointing at and diving into most urgent social issues. Detective and crime fiction authors’ novels feature excessive cruelty on TV (Kokotjukha’s Povze zmiya), corruption of minors (Didkovska’s Obitsyau ne vbyvaty), destructive sects (Natalya and Oleksandr Shevchenko’s Oksamytovy pereverten/Velvet Werewolf), medical malpractices (Volkov’s Amnistiya dlya khakera), smuggling abroad of cultural values (Abramov’s Hru pochynaye pokiynyk) etc.

Thus, the prospects of Ukrainian detective action fiction including various subgenres (action, noir, horror, melodrama, political, historical, and retro crime fiction) are quite promising. Not to mention the fact that movie-makers pay increasing attention to influential detective and crime fiction authors; when a film version of a book is released, it definitely adds to the author’s popularity.


Publication arranged with MSBrand Corporation Agency

by Viktor Khyzhnyak