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It’s a Mystery: With Caviar Comes Money

By (August 1, 2009) No Comment


By Reggie Nadelson
Walker & Company, 2009

If Dostoevsky created a detective today, it would be Artie Cohen. He broods with world class angst about his Russian roots, his father the KGB operative, his reinvented American self, past cases he’s solved, and the case in front of him. He smokes too much, he drinks too much, he loves too much, and he cares too much. Yes, about crime and appropriate punishment among many other things! If I had a nickel for every inner demon he’s battling, I’d be rich. The creator of this very complex male character, astonishingly enough, is a woman (I know that’s sexist, but, trust me, it’s apt). Reggie Nadelson has written seven previous Artie Cohen novels filled with remarkable characters that fairly catapult off the page. You might say that Londongrad is a fitting coda to her “archipelago” (Nadelson’s word for the layered immigrant neighborhoods) of New York City trilogy: Disturbed Earth, Red Hook, and Fresh Kills. But make no mistake, it stands alone.

When Londongrad opens, Artie has been summoned, “at the crack of dawn,” to his best friend Anatoly Sverdloff’s club in the West Village. Artie’s just started his vacation, but Tolya is always special. He knows Artie will do whatever he wants without asking. It’s his definition of a friend. A big bear of a man with a bottomless appetite for life, Tolya wraps himself in imported cashmere, smokes cigars he swears are from Fidel, eats fresh caviar by the pound and drinks only the best money can buy.

“They let you carry all this stuff on a plane?”

“Please, Artyom, (my old Russian nickname), what’s the matter with you, you think I fly commercial?” …Like me, Tolya grew up in Moscow. I got out when I was sixteen, got to New York, cut all my ties, dumped my past as fast as I could. He had a place over there, and one in England. Tolya was a nomad now, London, New York, Russia. He had opened clubs in all of them…. I didn’t ask about his deals or how he made his money; he was my friend; we had shared the salt, as the Russians say, it was enough.

Tolya pours Artie a glass of wine that only an Arab Emir could afford. It’s not yet nine in the morning, but he figures somewhere the sun is over the yardarm, as the saying goes. Tolya wants Artie to take some books to an aging fellow Russian—an old lady in Brooklyn who “depends.” He’d do it himself only he has staff problems, something he never understands:

I am very nice with my staff. I pay salary, also tips, unlike many clubs.

Right, I said, feeling the wine in my veins like liquid pleasure. Of course, Tolya. You are the nicest boss in town.

Do not laugh at me, Artyom, he said, I am very good socialist in capitalist drag.

My elbows on the bar, I was slowly winding down into a vacation mode, thinking of things I’d do…maybe dinner with Valentina though I didn’t mention it to Tolya. He was crazy about his daughter, Val, and so was I. If Tolya knew how much, he’d rip my arms out…she was half my age.

Pour me a little more of that wine, will you? I said.

Just go.

I hear you. I’m going.

Artie is halfway out the door when Tolya mentions that an ex-feeb (an FBI agent) was around asking for him and wanted to know if Artie is still working Russian jobs. It’s a red flag, so to speak, that Artie shouldn’t ignore—but to his peril, he does. And Artie, being Artie, runs a fool’s errand on his way to Brooklyn, and finds a dead body. The corpse is wrapped in silver duct tape from head to toe, a signal from the Russian Mob to put a lid on it. Not Artie. Always the detective who leaps before he looks, he’s on the case faster than you can say “I’m outta here on vacation.” Once Artie gets close to a case, he never lets go.

In record time, the trail leads back to Tolya and Valentina. From there, it’s follow the money from Manhattan to London, a not so current tax haven for oligarchs. Likened to Berlin at the end of World War II, Londongrad, as it’s known, has become an offshore island for the nouveau criminals. They are the very rich Russians who make up a netherworld devoted to the amoral pursuit of luxury. People kill for this. Who cares if Russian fishermen do business with Iranian fishermen? With caviar comes money. Who cares if Russian generals and Chechen rebels pump their gas at the same hole? These are Russians floating on oil, with all the money in the world. Who cares that Putin stashes his money in Swiss banks? Does Tolya? He has a dacha near Putin. Who cares if FBI, CIA, MI5, 6, KGB, and FSB all seem the same?

Tolya had warned Artie about this FBI schmuck. Artie is swimming upstream in the clear water of discovery, while underneath him is sludge. The body count is mounting, and the whiff of poison that is evil incarnate is not at all faint. The specter of Sasha Litvinenko, the Russian killed in London by polonium-210, looms large. Rumor has it, “they” put it in his tea and it ate him up from inside. The Russians blamed the British, the case was never solved, but a particularly solvent segment of Russians awash in full-frontal capitalism have never forgotten.

The action, with a kind of surreal frenzy, moves to Moscow. Once there, Artie is propelled by an unrelenting sense of déj� vu. He goes to Tolya’s club where he loses control with a British tourist and becomes a punching bag for the doorman and his pals:

Reggie Nadelson

I was in Moscow. I had punched out a tourist and a local. I was fucked….When I came to my head felt like it was inside a nutcracker…I squinted through bruised eyes and saw I was in a small apartment, lying on a couch…sitting cross-legged on the mattress on the floor was a guy in gray sweatpants, a white shirt and socks. Hanging from a hook in a plastic dry-cleaning bag was a police uniform.

Who the hell are you? I said to the man. Arkady Renko? Where am I?

Drink your tea, the man said, and I saw a mug of green tea on a little table.

Are you a policeman?

Sure. Sometimes, he said. I do many things.

He turns out to be Viktor Leven, a cousin of one of Artie’s N.Y. cop friends, Boris Leven whom Artie calls Bobo:

How did you know where to find me?

Artemy, excuse me, but if you spend three years in the fucking Russian army it’s not so hard to find one American like you in Moscow. Anyhow, my cousin Boris told me to watch out for you. He says to me, watch out for this guy who can be one fucking asshole, but he’s a good cop, okay?…You’re in big trouble. You’re playing with guys who are very, very connected…they beat you up at the club, next time they’ll cut your tongue out or kill you…they know all about you. You’re fully recorded in the files, you’re on the list…. You have contacts with anyone here? FSB, he said in a low voice.

I don’t know these bastards.

KGB…. Your father.

He’s been dead a long time.

They like the children, you have heritage…. Sooner or later somebody will remember your father and say, what about him, what about the son, he’s one of us.

Using all his cop senses, Artie manages to get away from Viktor and into the maelstrom that is modern Moscow. On the run, he uncovers old tracks that lead him to a painful truth about his past. No one is free.

Reggie Nadelson is an original. Her detective Artie Cohen is as cunning as he is charming, as hardnosed as he is vulnerable, more gemütlich and giving than he likes to reveal. Her dialogue, characters and descriptive atmosphere are so authentic they assault the senses. This is crime fiction at its highest level.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.

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