Monday, April 12, 2021

Mette McLeod – an Expert Eye on Russia

Annamaria Introducing Mette McLeod

Russia has been on my want-to-visit list for a long while.  I hope to correct the omission one lovely post-COVID day.  In the meanwhile, Zoe has introduced me to someone who can provide a vicarious visit, here today, and in her acclaimed debut novel.  Meet Mette!

Mette McLeod grew up in Norway and trained at the Norwegian Defense Intelligence and Security School before being recruited to the Intelligence Service. She went on to work as a journalist reporting from all over the world, including two years as a correspondent in Moscow. Her writing is inspired by people she’s met, real events and situations. She lives in Bergen, Norway, with her husband, two children and a Welsh lurcher.


She took an MA in Creative Writing at City, University of London, receiving a Distinction for her novel RED HAVEN, and won the PFD/City prize. RED HAVEN was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association.


From gilded halls to rusty doors


Russia is a place of extreme contrasts. I was fortunate to live and work there for two years, and as a journalist I got to see a great many sides of Russian society up close. It was an incredible place to report on, but there were too many stories that didn’t fit into any article, and too many places I visited that I never had enough column inches to describe.


Through my debut novel, Red Haven, I found a way to share some of those stories and places. Below are just a few that made it into the book - whether in their real-life forms or with a bit of creative licence. Locations anyone who’s been in Russia for a significant amount of time will recognise.

Men on high horses riding into the ballroom

There is an area just west of the Kremlin where all the streets are named after a trade: the tablecloth alley, the bread alley. And then there’s the cook’s street, Ulitsa Povarskaya. Just behind a small, white church on the neon lights-decorated Novy Arbat, you can find the Norwegian ambassador's residence, which I used as a setting for my imaginary “Casino Mitrofan” in Red Haven. In the 1880s the house belonged to the businessman Mitrofanov Grachev, who built it into the stately home it is today. It is said that a man once made a very grand entrance to a ball by riding his horse up the wide marble staircase. 


Norwegian Embassy stairs

After the 1917 revolution the building was nationalised along with most other properties, and it then became the German embassy. But after the second world war, when the Soviet Union had helped liberate northern Norway from German occupation, the Soviet Union and Norway each converted the former German embassy in their country to that of their counterpart: Germany’s embassy in Moscow became Norway’s.


Ballroom of the Ambassador's residence

There are real casinos in Moscow, plenty of them, but I wanted to share some of the beautiful pre-revolution architecture that you can still find in Moscow by using this setting for Red Haven’s casino scene. So much of the old architecture has been destroyed, both during communism and since 1991. A great many historic buildings have been gutted, with only the facade remaining. But not this one. The ambassador's residence has a beautiful mirrored ballroom where cherubs dance across the ceiling in a painting from 1888, elaborately decorated sitting rooms and a dining room with a built-in nook for Russian-Orthodox icons. There’s also a grand piano that Prokofiev once played.  

A diamond-embellished iPhone in the hand is worth a fortune in the bank

Fancy a set of crystal rims for your car? Your very own helicopter or private jet? Or a diamond encrusted mobile phone? This and much more was available at the Moscow Millionaire Fair, an annual fixture on the city’s “see and be seen” calendar, with a strict dress code. 


Private jets on offer at the Moscow Millionaire Fair

But buying these ludicrous luxuries isn’t only about conspicuous consumption. Twice during the 1990s, ordinary Russians lost all their savings to banking collapses, so there’s a big incentive to convert disposable income into something tangible each month, rather than stash it away. And plenty of people do have cash on hand.


Diamond-encrusted mobile phones
at the Moscow Millionaire Fair

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, government-provided housing was privatised and in many cases ownership was simply transferred to the current inhabitants. That meant a lot of people owned their homes outright. With a low birthrate (most couples only have one child), many contemporary Russians have inherited a city-centre home from their grandparents, giving them very low living costs. For those with a decent income, with little to no faith in piling up savings, there’s a pressing need to find a way to convert their money into luxuries on a monthly basis. 

Where men go their own way

Is there a collective noun for man caves? There should be one in Russian. Many Russians live in small flats in high rise apartment blocks with no outside space and nowhere to keep a car. That means garages are arranged in large clusters, often far from where the owners live. But these owners don’t necessarily mind that. Their small flat may be shared with multiple generations of their - or their wife’s - family. For many men, the garage complexes are a haven, a refuge, a place where they can be their own boss. 


Garages with chimneys

Some use the garage only as a place to mend their car, but others have far more elaborate setups. The smoke from the chimneys can reveal a woodfired banya (Russian sauna); in many you’ll find sofas, cans of beer and bottles of vodka. Many have an extra floor on top, or a greenhouse full of vegetable plants. The garage complex in my photos is in Murmansk, a city in the north west of Russia, but it could be anywhere. 


A field of Russian garages

Despite Russia being a place with some seriously organised crime, I’ve felt remarkably safe travelling around the country on my own over the years. Though I’m not sure if I ever was alone. The first time I went to Russia, I had recently left the Norwegian Intelligence service, and I clocked two men following me around the streets of St. Petersburg on my very first day there. I decided then that I’d stop looking for anyone following me or my phone being bugged; It would just make me paranoid thinking my every move was observed by others. Though the clicking on the phone line was hard to ignore... 


Mette’s debut thriller, RED HAVEN, is out now:


Meet Aurora “Rory” Conroy: ex-military, private investigator, specialist in finding and extracting kidnapped children. She’s doing her dream job, but after her sleaze of a boss crosses a line, she finds herself cut adrift. Starting out on her own, an old schoolmate gets in touch with what looks like the perfect case for her first assignment. But is it?


Amazon US


Amazon UK

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mette. Welcome to Murder Is Everywhere -- it's great to have you here. And wonderful to see images of some of the settings from your book. I recall the casino scenes very well!