Russia can be a great setting for writing crime fiction, dramas and thrillers: vast isolated territories, cold winters, geopolitical concerns and continuing mob activity have all been the backdrop of many crime novels set in this country.
In this piece, we wanted to introduce you to some lesser-known Russian authors who have truly mastered the craft and through their books and short stories, successfully developed a loyal fan base.
If you’d like an introduction to Russia Noir, these titles are great starting points.
Note: If you’re enjoying this article, we also recommend reading Moscow Noir: The Ultimate Guide To The Swedish Thriller TV Series.
The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin
Moscow, May 1876: What would cause a talented young student from a wealthy family to shoot himself in front of a promenading public in the Alexander Gardens? Decadence and boredom, most likely, is what the commander of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Police thinks, but still he finds it curious enough to send the newest member of the division, Erast Fandorin, a young man of irresistible charm, to the Alexander Gardens precinct for more information.
Fandorin is not satisfied with the conclusion that this is an open-and-shut case, nor with the preliminary detective work the precinct has done—and for good reason: The bizarre and tragic suicide is soon connected to a clear case of murder, witnessed firsthand by Fandorin. There are many unresolved questions.
Why, for instance, have both victims left their fortunes to an orphanage run by the English Lady Astair? And who is the beautiful “A.B.,” whose signed photograph is found in the apparent suicide’s apartment? Relying on his keen intuition, the eager sleuth plunges into an investigation that leads him across Europe, landing him at the deadly center of a terrorist conspiracy of worldwide proportions.
Harlequin’s Costume (Putilin Trilogy) by Leonid Yuzefovich
The year is 1871. Prince von Ahrensburg, Austria’s military attaché to St. Petersburg, has been killed in his own bed. The murder threatens diplomatic consequences for Russia so dire that they could alter the course of history.
Leading the investigation into the high-ranking diplomat’s death is Chief Inspector Ivan Putilin, but the Tsar has also called in the notorious Third Department – the much-feared secret police – on the suspicion that the murder is politically motivated. As the clues accumulate, the list of suspects grows longer; there are even rumors of a werewolf at large in the capital.
Suspicion falls on the diplomat’s lover and her cuckolded husband, as well as Russian, Polish and Italian revolutionaries, not to mention Turkish spies. True to his maxim that “coincidence and passion are the real conspirators,” Putilin seeks answers inside the diplomatic circus as well, which leads him to struggles with criminals and with the secret police itself. When the mystery is solved, the only person who saw it coming was Putilin.
St. Petersburg Noir by Julia Goumen (Editor), Natalia Smirnova (Editor), and others.
“Fourteen uniformly strong stories in [this] outstanding noir anthology devoted to Russia’s second city . . . an ideal backdrop for crime fiction.”
The origins of St. Petersburg’s rich noir tradition come from the city’s history, urban landscape, and the weather. The freezing winds from the Baltics give rise to hopelessness, despair, and the darkest of humor. The swamps upon which the city was built cloak it in a thick haze that inspires ghostly tales and furtive behaviors.
In St. Petersburg Noir, you’ll find original stories by Lena Eltang, Sergei Nosov, Alexander Kudriavstev, Andrei Kivinov, Julia Belomlinsky, Natalia Kurchatova & Ksenia Venglinskaya, Anton Chizh, Vladimir Berezin, Andrei Rubanov, Vadim Levental, Anna Solovey, Mikhail Lialin, Pavel Krusanov, and Eugene Kogan.
Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel
One of the great masterpieces of Russian literature, the Red Cavalry cycle retains today the shocking freshness that made Babel’s reputation when the stories were first published in the 1920s.
Using his own experiences as a journalist and propagandist with the Red Army during the war against Poland, Babel brings to life an astonishing cast of characters from the exuberant, violent era of early Soviet history: commissars and colonels, Cossacks and peasants, and among them the bespectacled, Jewish writer/intellectual, observing it all and trying to establish his role in the new Russia.
Drawn from the acclaimed, award-winning Complete Works of Isaac Babel, this volume includes all of the Red Cavalry cycle; Babel’s 1920 diary, from which the material for the fiction was drawn; and his preliminary sketches for the stories—the whole constituting a fascinating picture of a great writer turning life into art.
Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin
Erast Fandorin returns in another thrilling Russian crime caper, from the bestselling author of THE WINTER QUEEN.
The Russo-Turkish war is at a critical juncture, and Erast Fandorin, broken-hearted and disillusioned, has gone to the front in an attempt to forget his sorrows. But Fandorin’s efforts to steer clear of trouble are thwarted when he comes to the aid of Varvara Suvorova – a ‘progressive’ Russian woman trying to make her way to the Russian headquarters to join her fiancé.
Within days, Varvara’s fiancé has been accused of treason, a Turkish victory looms on the horizon, and there are rumours of a Turkish spy hiding within their own camp. Our reluctant gentleman sleuth will need to resurrect all of his dormant powers of detection if he is to unmask the traitor, help the Russians to victory and smooth the path of young love.
Moscow Noir by by Natalia Smirnova (Editor), Julia Goumen (Editor), and others
The more you watch Moscow, the more it looks like a huge chameleon that keeps changing its face—and it isn’t always pretty. Following Akashic Books’ international success with London Noir, Delhi Noir, Paris Noir, and others, the Noir series explores this fabled and troubled city’s darkest recesses.
Moscow Noir features stories by: Alexander Anuchkin, Igor Zotov, Gleb Shulpyakov, Vladimir Tuchkov, Anna Starobinets, Vyacheslav Kuritsyn, Sergei Samsonov, Alexei Evdokimov, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Maxim Maximov, Irina Denezhkina, Dmitry Kosyrev, Andrei Khusnutdinov, and Sergei Kuznetsov.
2017 by Olga Slavnikova
Professor Anfilogov, a wealthy and emotionless man, sets out on an expedition to unearth priceless rubies that no one else has been able to locate.
His expedition reveals ugly truths about man’s disregard for nature and the disasters created by insatiable greed. Olga Slavnikova stuns with this witty, engaging, and remarkable tale of love, obsession, murder, and the lengths people will go to get what they want. Her biting prose is brought to life vividly and faithfully by acclaimed translator Marian Schwartz. With 2017, Slavnikova takes up the mantle of Russia’s unrivaled literary heritage.
The Mountain and The Wall by Alisa Ganieva
This remarkable debut novel by a unique young Russian voice portrays the influence of political intolerance and religious violence in the lives of people forced to choose between evils.
The Mountain and the Wall focuses on Shamil, a young local reporter in Makhachkala, and his reactions, or lack thereof, to rumors that the Russian government is building a wall to cut off the Muslim provinces of the Caucasus from the rest of Russia. As unrest spreads and the tension builds, Shamil’s life is turned upside down, and he can no longer afford to ignore the violence surrounding him.
Murder on the Leviathan by Boris Akunin
Paris, 1878: Eccentric antiquarian Lord Littleby and his ten servants are found murdered in Littleby’s mansion on the rue de Grenelle, and a priceless Indian shawl is missing. Police commissioner “Papa” Gauche recovers only one piece of evidence from the crime scene: a golden key shaped like a whale. Gauche soon deduces that the key is in fact a ticket of passage for the Leviathan, a gigantic steamship soon to depart Southampton on its maiden voyage to Calcutta. The murderer must be among its passengers.
In Cairo, the ship is boarded by a young Russian diplomat with a shock of white hair—none other than Erast Fandorin, the celebrated detective of Boris Akunin’s The Winter Queen. The sleuth joins forces with Gauche to determine which of ten unticketed passengers on the Leviathan is the rue de Grenelle killer.
Tipping his hat to Agatha Christie, Akunin assembles a colorful cast of suspects—including a secretive Japanese doctor, a professor who specializes in rare Indian artifacts, a pregnant Swiss woman, and an English aristocrat with an appetite for collecting Asian treasures—all of whom are con?ned together until the crime is solved. As the Leviathan steams toward Calcutta, will Fandorin be able to out-investigate Gauche and discover who the killer is, even as the ship’s passengers are murdered, one by one?
Already an international sensation, Boris Akunin’s latest page-turner transports the reader back to the glamorous, dangerous past in a richly atmospheric tale of suspense on the high seas.
Mystery Tribune’s Reading Lists provide a window into some of the best and most popular crime, mystery and thriller novels from around the world. For our online archive of Reading Lists, please visit here.