Author A.D. Miller’s debut novel defies the traditional crime thriller genre as it explores the Russian capital’s underbelly. Stephen Jewell writes.
Given that they were both based in Moscow for several years, it's easy to confuse Andrew "A.D." Miller with Nick Platt, the central protagonist of his impressive debut novel Snowdrops. But when I meet the 36-year-old author at a cafe near his Kentish Town home, he assures me he pursued a considerably more sober existence during his stint in the Russian capital than Nick, the fictional high-flying lawyer who is drawn into an intricate web of deception after falling for the seductive charms of the enigmatic Masha.
"One of the risks of writing in the first person, especially if the narrator is someone quite similar to yourself, is that people conflate the two things," says Miller, who was the Economist's Russian correspondent from 2004 to 2007.
"I am also a 30-something man, who lived in Moscow, so quite a few people have presumed the story is a kind of obfuscated autobiography. But when I was living there, I didn't engage in any acts of murder or grand larceny, nor did I lead the life that Nick does. I was working as a journalist and I was living with my wife, so I didn't frequent the shady bars and nightclubs that Nick goes to. However, I knew a lot of people who did."
Now working part-time as the Economist's writer-at-large, Miller wasn't confident he would be able to scale back his day job when he initially finished his inaugural opus. But since it was first published last September, Snowdrops has been short-listed for the British Crime Writer's Association's prestigious Golden Dagger award and long-listed for last year's Man Booker Prize.
"It was touch and go as to whether anyone would take it on," he recalls. "Then it was well received when it came out and has now been translated into lots of other languages, all of which was an extremely pleasant and unexpected outcome, particularly with the Booker. When you write your first book, you don't expect that to happen. It's nice to be recognised with the Gold Dagger but I was a bit surprised by that. When I was writing it, I didn't really think of it as a crime story, although there are crimes that come into it."
Despite its compelling plot, Snowdrops' deeper thematic concerns and more cerebral games of subterfuge means it stands apart from the average page-turner. "The story I wanted to tell doesn't have any of the conventional elements of a thriller," says Miller. "There's implied violence but no actual violence. It doesn't have any spies or chase scenes and it doesn't really have a big mystery in terms of the denouement. I've described it as a moral thriller because it's really about the moral degradation of the narrator and how this normal, 30-something English guy comes to do some extremely regrettable things."
Miller took his lead more from the work of Russian great Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment) than he did from the bestselling likes of Ian Rankin and Mark Billingham. "His books always involve a crime," he says. "They ask, 'what is a crime and who actually commits it?' Is it the person who wields the knife or is the guilt more widespread? And how do you live with it afterwards if you commit a terrible act? I guess you could say he's a crime writer but I haven't read what people usually describe as crime fiction. I'm not a great believer in the value of thinking in genres."
Miller is reluctant to reveal too much about the elaborate confidence trick that lies at the heart of the novel. "You could say it's a quintessential post-Soviet, Russian scam because it combines the instant wealth of privatisation with massive inequality and corruption in the judiciary and the police, all of which allow it to happen," he says. "It's a real thing, not invented by me, which happens a lot."
With its seedy sex clubs and furtive criminal underworld, Miller doesn't paint the most alluring portrait of the Russian capital. However, he insists it isn't representative of the nation or indeed Moscow as a whole.
"The action happens in the kind of neighbourhoods and venues that people like Nick spend their time in," he says of the novel, which takes place in the early part of the last decade. "I've tried to capture the atmosphere of that milieu in the years before the credit crunch. In a way this is a book as much about a time and a place, the mid-noughties, when people, not only in Moscow but all over the world, were turning blind eyes to all kinds of things. This was definitely true of some of the expat community in Moscow, where there was a kind of 'no questions asked' ethos and Nick has this attitude in both his professional and personal life. He wilfully deceives himself about the reality of the people he meets and is attracted to it because it serves his interests."
Reflecting the harshness of the snowbound city, the novel takes its title from the Russian slang for the hidden corpses buried under mounds of snow until the spring thaw. "I tried to write about the winter metaphorically," he says. "What it signifies in the book is a psychological habit rather than a criminal act. It stands for a kind of a moral oblivion as the dark truths about ourselves that we would prefer to ignore but which eventually come back to the light."
A.D. Miller is a guest at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, Aotea Centre, May 9-13.