In this international mystery, New York private investigator Jo Epstein is roped into helping her émigré stepfather, Nikolai, escape the clutches of a ruthless blackmailer, Jo must enter a world where criminals enforce a 19th century code of honor, threats arrive inside traditional Matryoshka (nesting) dolls, and fashion models adorn themselves with lewd prison tattoos. And even as she helps Nikolai—who claims to have been framed—to evade the police, Jo can’t help wondering if he is as innocent as he claims.
From Vladimir Central Prison to the brooding Russian forest, Jo Epstein investigates the world of the Vory—a criminal sub-culture as brutal as it is romanticized—while racing against the clock to solve crimes committed on two continents.
“VERDICT Intricately layered like a Russian nested doll, this tale of vengeance and hatred flavored with a Russian cultural backdrop will appeal to readers who enjoy unusual mysteries with an international setting.” Library Journal
“Joyce Yarrow, writing the second in her series of Jo Epstein mysteries, may very well prove herself to be the Mickey Spillane of the 21st century.” ~ FCEtier, Blogcritics.org for Seattle Post Intelligencer
“…a multi-layered complicated story, best represented by those nesting dolls with one story inside another. You’ll want to discover the secrets buried in The Last Matryoshka.” ~ Lesa Holstine, Lesa’s Book Critiques
Note: This book is also available in hardcover under the title The Last Matryoshka.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Books are often written in response to a what if question.
It began with a cycle of yearly trips from Seattle to the Kings Highway section of Brooklyn, where my mother and stepfather lived. Each time I returned I found their neighborhood had become more ‘Russianized. Boutique windows displayed Russian dresses and blouses with fur lined collars, their manikins fitted out with go-go boots that made me smile. Caviar was easier to obtain than tuna fish. Signs posted in large black Cyrillic letter added mystery and cachet.
In the apartment directly below my mother’s, a Russian couple hosted house concerts featuring immensely talented, recently arrived Russian singers, some of whom were scheduled to audition for the Metropolitan Opera. Strains of piano music floated up to accompany me down the wide marble staircase to the 5th floor, where Lena and Isaac treated me to melt-in-your-mouth Russian cakes and eventually coaxed me into writing English lyrics for her sentimental ballads.
It was after meeting a wide assortment of Russian ‘ex-pats,’ many of them well into their ‘60s, that my writer’s brain kicked into gear. What if a feisty Russian émigré came to America to escape his criminal past? What if, many years later, he was tracked down by a fellow Russian seeking revenge for a betrayal that happened 40 years ago? What if this émigré happened to be the very same Nikolai who was married to my protagonist’s mother and lived—where else—in Brooklyn?
And so began Jo’s Epstein’s quest to save her stepfather, in spite of their tempestuous relationship. When Nikolai receives threats wrapped in increasingly smaller Matryoshka dolls and flees the country, Jo follows. And as it turned out, I did too!
Arriving in Moscow with a vocabulary of 20 Russian words and my 16-year-old son, I researched locations and interviewed people much as I had in Brighton Beach. We visited Vladimir Central Prison, where prisoners once lived by the a CODE OF THIEVES, and as the door clanged behind us and my son tried to hide his panic. I interviewed a Commander in the Moscow Criminal police, who generously bought me dinner, and reminisced about the days of the vory v zakone – thieves-in-law—when both criminals and police shared a code you could depend on.
I learned a great deal about the innate generosity of the Russian people and their passion for literature of all kinds. I also discovered that if you want to blend in on the Moscow Metro, carry a plastic bag instead of a touristy back pack.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I like to begin my stories at a turning point in the life of the protagonist. In this case, Jo Epstein makes a choice to return to her profession as a private investigator. Her inner conflict between the introspective life of a poet and the chaos and violence that dog the life of an investigator grows into a full blown conflict with a murderer that will require all her skills to survive.
RUSSIAN RECKONING – Excerpt from Chapter Eighteen
The five-by-ten-foot cell was no museum exhibit. All too real were the paper thin mattress between my spine and the hard bunk, the cold concrete floor, the humiliating bucket in the corner. The walls had been whitewashed, but some graffiti was faintly visible underneath the thin mixture of lime and water. One drawing, located directly opposite the bunk, had remained untouched—maybe preserved by some perversely appreciative trustee.
The silhouette of a woman’s face was outlined in barbed wire, drawn using God only knows what for ink. Below the face was a graphically rendered phallus, pierced by a dagger. The erect penis was ‘standing’ on chicken feet and, one of its testacies had sprouted a feather. There were words scrawled underneath, and I had no desire to know what they meant. I just knew that if I had not dropped out of the creative writing program at City College to go to criminology school, I would be looking at this “art” displayed on the wall of some avante garde museum, instead of sharing
a cell with it.
A pile of used wooden matches had been left on the floor next to the bunk, presumably by someone lucky enough to have had some smokes. The burnt
ends provided just enough soot for me to scratch out a haiku, my contribution to the wall:
tiny hairline crack
now a wide and deep ravine
with no way across
After the confrontation at reception, they had confiscated my purse and cell phone and taken me upstairs, strong-arming me through a maze of hallways that led to what I was sure was a deserted wing of the prison. Since hearing the door slam behind me, I had not heard a voice or a single sound indicating that the place was inhabited by fellow humans. Eventually, a guard opened the door to deliver my food tray—brown bread, meatloaf, and some suspicious looking caramel-colored pudding. I peppered him with questions, first in English and then in primitive Russian, but to no avail.
Alexandra had explained that all the cells were located in the upper stories of buildings that were connected by covered bridges, so that, as she put it, “a prisoner’s feet never touch the ground.” Except, I assumed, when they went to work in the bakery or were allowed to exercise in the yard.
I envisaged what it would be like to remain incarcerated here—possibly forever and at least for the time it took for Mr. Eeks to wreak his vengeance on Nikolai. This brought on a panic attack, and the only way I could calm my overheated brain was to use it to apply some logic to the situation.
First of all, it was obvious that the same Ishkhan Lamsa who ordered the restoration of the Matreshka doll at the toy factory was responsible for my being here in this cell. It was simply too much of a coincidence that I was arrested on the same day that I inquired about Lamsa at the Regional Archive. Second, Lamsa must either be with the Federal Security Service or the Militsiya, to be able to pull the kinds of strings he was using to entangle me. This conclusion raised, rather than lowered, my blood pressure. I decided I’d better start thinking about how to get out of here. It was an all-male prison—maybe I could talk them into letting me take a walk in the yard, and a tourist would see me from the same window where I had observed the roll call and realize that something was amiss. I imagined my predicament being reported in a blog on the Internet and leading to my eventual release.
The lights in my cell flickered before being extinguished, along with my far-fetched fantasy and any comfort it may have brought. I stared into the darkness, fear clutching my belly. I remembered one night, a lifetime ago in Brooklyn, asking Ludmilla if she and Sasha had ever considered going home after the fall of communism. She had scoffed at the idea, saying, “Freedom is my new friend, and I won’t give her up.” I said I’d heard that things had changed in Russia and that’s when she told me not to be naïve, that the concept of civil liberties did not yet exist here. “People may be free to buy designer clothes and sell goods imported from China,” she said, “but look at our leaders—all graduates of the KGB.” And now I was getting a taste of what she meant firsthand. I conjured up Larissa’s frightened face closing in on itself when she saw me being detained. A strong, intelligent woman completely intimidated by the first flexing of authoritarian muscle. I didn’t blame her—for all I knew she had relatives who were murdered for daring to speak up in the old days.
Sweat ran down the back of my neck, evaporating on my lower back and sending chills up my spine. I clutched the good luck charm that Sanyo had given me, unfastening the chain from around my neck so I could hold the medallion in my palm. As I traced the face embossed on the metal with my finger, I saw Sanyo’s face, concerned for my safety, amused at my foolhardiness, lustful for my return. There were so many things I wanted to say to him, but right now all I could think of was get me out of here.
Most writers start as readers. The public library was just a few blocks from our apartment in the Bronx and was definitely the safest place in our crime-ridden neighborhood, where gangs rumbled every night and even walking to school could prove perilous.
My own writing juices began to flow when I discovered the music hidden within words. I set William Blake’s poem, “Infant Sorrow” to a melody with guitar accompaniment and went on to become a full-fledged singer-songwriter, with many side journeys into poetry published in short-lived magazines. Wonderful days! When I moved to Los Angeles, I got caught up in the film world and was hired to script narration for a documentary (my first gig as a professional writer). This meant sitting in the editing room and “writing to picture,” a great discipline for a writer—you have to let the visuals speak for themselves and use words merely to enrich the viewer’s experience.
I loved writing for film and TV, but the cleaner my prose grew the more I wanted to try my hand at writing a book in which words would be allowed to breathe. The gap between writing scripts and short stories to authoring novels seemed impossibly wide and I wondered if I could close the distance by writing a mystery novel. The mystery genre is highly structured and requires strong characters, a tight plot that builds suspense, and a satisfying solution at the end—at least I would not get lost in the wilderness of literary fiction (that came later). An avid mystery reader, I was a total neophyte when it came to mystery categories. So when my first book, Ask the Dead, was published and hailed as Bronx Noir, I had to look up noir to make sure I knew what that meant.
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