A Spy Novelist in Russia

Category: Featured

Earlier this month, author Charles Cumming was invited on a trip to Russia, organized by the British Council, as part of the 2014 ‘UK-Russia Year of Culture’ programme. They stayed in Moscow and Tarusa, visiting some absolutely incredible places – Tolstoy’s house at Yasnaya Polyana, Chekov’s country estate, the Kremlin – and soaking up the local culture (and, we assume, a sensible amount of vodka).

In case you didn’t catch Charles’s live tweets from Russia, we’ve provided a recap below. And if you want to see more of his accomplished photography, head on over to his facebook page ( to get a peek inside the Grand Kremlin Palace, see close-ups of Chekov’s writing desk, and James Bond’s swimming trunks!

Charles Cumming @CharlesCumming · Sep 7

Inside the Grand Kremlin Palace on Saturday afternoon pic.twitter.com/ID9F7PjpaE

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 Charles Cumming @CharlesCumming · Sep 8

At Kim Philby’s grave in Kuntsevo cemetery @StMartinsPress @HarperFiction #BritishCouncil #Moscow2014 @BenMacintyre1 pic.twitter.com/TBQAbrNDz9

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(If you have read Charles’s novel, The Trinity Six, you’ll appreciate this photo of him standing by Kim Philby’s grave.)

Charles Cumming @CharlesCumming · Sep 9

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The room in which he wrote War & Peace #Tolstoy #BritishCouncil pic.twitter.com/FYqMNw9ZmE

Alex von Tunzelmann @alexvtunzelmann · Sep 8

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UK authors visit Anton Chekhov’s house. The only one tall enough to ring Chekhov’s lunch bell is @CharlesC umming. pic.twitter.com/2HrHAYw70T

 

Charles Cumming @CharlesCumming · Sep 11

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Chess players in Gorky Park. The man in the cap beat me in 18 moves

 

Charles Cumming @CharlesCumming · Sep 9

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Tolstoy’s grave in the forest at Yasnaya Polyana pic.twitter.com/aByJLbiNRQ

 

Alex von Tunzelmann @alexvtunzelmann · Sep 8

breakfast pic

The most anguish-inducing breakfast I have ever seen. Welcome to rural Russia! @Tussymarx @CharlesCumming pic.twitter.com/oiyuevI6qn

 

Charles Cumming’s latest novel is A Colder War. You can follow him on twitter here and find him on facebook here 

A Colder War

Two Madnesses: Why I Write About Broken Minds

Category: Author Post

We’re very excited to welcome Jack Kerley, author of the addictive Carson Ryder series, to the blog today, who has written us a fascinating piece about broken minds…

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In 1969 a madman named Charles Manson shocked the U.S. with a savage event: On Manson’s instructions, several of his followers—runaway kids, basically—ripped apart seven people in the Hollywood Hills. I was enthralled by the delusions of his “family” as the followers were called, most viewing Manson as a diety, though the motley group lived in squalor on a broken-down ranch.

Vincent Bugliosi’s book on the crimes followed, Helter-Skelter, and I read it repeatedly, fascinated by Manson’s hypnotic hold on the psyches of his sad and murderous crew who—even as Manson was tried and imprisoned—claimed their leader was beaming messages and instructions into their minds.

College came, and my thoughts turned elsewhere until someone called to say a good friend of mine, call him Jimmy, had taken bites of his brother’s collection of Beatle albums, and completely devoured the White Album.

Shaken, but intrigued–was it a joke?–I visited Jimmy at the home he shared with his parents. The disheveled bedroom I’d often visited was now as neat as a furniture showroom, pristine, dusted, the bed made military-tight. One more change: on every horizontal surface, desk, chest of drawers, cabinet, window sills, were thousands of pennies, randomly arranged, separated by two to five millimeters.

I’d been advised by former visitors to try something, but it would wait until Jimmy left the room.
He was in his bed when I entered, dressed in pajamas, his feet bare. When Jimmy stood to greet me, he produced a shoe horn and used it to guide his feet into outsized moccasins, the horn unnecessary, but somehow essential. His elaborate entrance into his shoes had the appearance of a ritual.

Thus shod, Jimmy turned his attention to his bed, noting the small wrinkles where he’d lain. Though easily smooth-able with a hand, Jimmy tore covers and sheets away and remade the bed entirely. Again, the feeling of a ceremony needing to be performed.

We spoke almost normally, what I’d been doing in college, mainly. I didn’t mention the gnawed vinyl records or other recent reports, like Jimmy’s refusal to drink from any vessel but a wooden mug. He was Jimmy, and yet he was not, an eerie and penetrating gaze in his eyes, his head cocked like listening between my words instead of to them.
He finally left for the bathroom. When the door closed, I did as former visitors instructed, shifting random pennies amidst the copper clutter … one penny on the desk, the chest, the cabinet. No coin was moved more than two millimeters.

I sat and waited.

Jimmy returned a few minutes later. Passing me and without even looking at the coins, he reached out and brought the three pennies back to original position. I could not have accomplished the feat had I made the pennied pattern a year-long study, and yet my old amigo had, under the power of his illness, felt the disorder in his coins, and returned them to correct alignment.

The moment had the feeling of a supernatural occurrence, yet was totally the product of a human mind. I’m not sure I slept that night, unable to stop re-thinking the event.

Jimmy’s delusions soon widened into the creation of small “objects of power”, usually medicine vials filled with colored stones or feathers. “Touch it, Jack,” he’d say, handing me a vial. I’d take it in hand. “Are you getting it?” he’d grin, hoping I was sharing in the charge from the talisman. I always assured him I felt the magic, which pleased my friend greatly.

Jimmy’s condition was soon diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia and, sadly, proved resistant to treatment. He spent most of his remaining life in and out of institutions. But when I saw him, in taverns usually, he was always happy. It almost seemed that the illness was where he felt best.

Thus the genesis of my stories: Two madnesses, one deadly and aimed outward, one benign save for it’s effect on Jimmy and his friends and family, but both exemplars of the power of the mind to shape alternate realities. The events never left my head and when it came time to write, I knew that many of my stories would be drawn, in some fashion, from broken minds and the worlds they build.

– J. A. Kerley

The Memory Killer is out on 19th June – order your copy today!

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In conversation with Camilla Lackberg

Category: Author Post

Buried Angels, Camilla Lackberg’s eighth book in her stunning Erica Falck and Patrick Hedstrom series was published earlier this month! We were thrilled to be able to catch up with her recently to talk all about her new novel, her writing, and her very busy schedule…

Who did you grow up reading, and did they influence your writing in any way?

I was introduced to great literature when I was very young. Before I turned ten I had read most of Agatha Christie’s amazing novels and until this day she remains a great inspiration to me

Buried Angels is the eighth book in your Erica Falck and Patrick Hedstrom series. Apart from the unique cases they are instrumental in solving, Erica and Patrick are depicted as a very ordinary couple – with universal problems of how to juggle childcare and their careers, dealing with in-laws, and going through difficult times in their relationship. Why is it so important to you to portray the domestic side of life in your crime novels?

For me exploring my characters’ relationships and daily lives is a way of giving my novels more depth, another dimension. Personally, I like it when I get to know the characters when I’m reading crime fiction. It makes me feel more engaged with the story when I understand their feelings, sorrows and surroundings.

In Buried Angels, you portray a husband and wife struggling with the death of their only child, and how grief can manifest itself in different, sometimes shocking ways. Being a mother yourself, was it difficult trying to imagine how it would feel to lose a child, and the impact that it would have on your life and your relationships?

Honestly, it was very hard to write about it. When you start telling a story like this you have to face all kinds of horrible scenarios and process the darkest of emotions. Losing one of my children would be the worst thing that could ever happen to me. They mean everything and I just cannot imagine my life without them.

Even your less-than-sympathetic characters are all eventually shown to have some humanity.  They’re not stereotypes of evil or ignorance. To what extent were you drawing on people you knew growing up in Fjallbacka versus creating the characters from your imagination?

Although I might get some inspiration from people that I have met during my upbringing in Fjällbacka, my characters are totally fictional.  Adding more human sides to my less-than-sympathetic characters is very important, as it makes them more realistic. Human beings are complex creatures with both great and less-flattering characteristics.

Another issue you explore in Buried Angels is that of identity – how we become who we are, and the legacy passed down to us through the generations. The idea of the past coming to bear on the present is a recurrent theme within several of your books – what interests you most about this?

I like to study the causes and effects of different scenarios.  It’s fascinating to explore how things that happen in the past may play a role in the future.

Your books are translated into 37 languages – do you worry that anything will be lost in translation, and do you work with the translators at all?

Of course it’s always a bit scary when your books are being translated. There are so many cultural references in my novels and I know it’s a challenge to capture the essence of it all. How do you describe the small town of Fjällbacka for someone on the other side of the world without losing minor, but important, details? It’s not an easy task.

In the end you have to find great translators whom you trust, and let go of the control (which sometimes is very hard).

Do you adhere to a strict writing schedule – do you write every day?

I go into what I call ‘writing periods’ when I dedicate all of my working hours to writing. I have to have this dedicated time; otherwise I would never be able to focus.

You are a celebrity in Sweden, and spend a lot of time promoting your books at various book fairs and events – how do you cope with being a writer, a mother, and a celebrity?

It’s a puzzle! My life is rich, but other things suffer. Let’s just say I do not have the tidiest home…

Is there a crime novel that you wish that you had written? 

Any novel about Poirot or Miss Marple!

 

Buried Angels is out right now – order your copy today!