In the dying days of World War Two, Pavel Romasko and his Red Army colleagues pick their way through the detritus of a dying Berlin. Stumbling upon the smoking remains of a Nazi bunker, they find something inside that eclipses the horror of even the worst excesses in the city above them.
As the war ends, retribution begins. But some revenge cannot be taken at once. Some revenge takes years.
Which is how, seventy years later, FBI agent Carla Romero and New York lawyer Gabriel Hall are enlisted to investigate a series of blood-chilling crimes that seem to have their roots in the distant past — even though the suffering they cause is all too present. And for one of them, the disappearance of young women is a particularly personal matter.
After reading and reviewing The Blameless Dead, a standalone thriller that takes some of the most well-known events from modern history and reconsiders them in unflinching terms, Paul Burke had a number of questions for author Gary Haynes:
Paul Burke: I read somewhere that writing is a sort of compulsion for you. Could you explain what you mean by that? Was it always the way you felt about writing?
Gary Haynes: My first attempts at creative writing were poems and plays, although I was really writing for myself, rather than for publication. I have, since my mid-teens, written most days in one way or another. The desire to express myself via writing has been there since I began reading books by choice, rather than having to at school. The desire gradually morphed into the compulsion I have today. I am something of an obsessive by nature. I have a capacity to be self-destructive and a capacity to create. The compulsion stems from the channelling of my obsessive nature into a creative process. I rarely have to drag myself to the laptop to write.
PB: I think you believe in the dictum that writers need to read a lot in order to write. Were you always a big reader? Who would you say your influences are and what led you to thriller writing?
GH: I think it is essential for a writer to read a lot. It is an indispensable apprenticeship that should become a daily activity. During the apprentice period, I would advise reading widely and certainly outside of a person’s preferred genre. I was a voracious reader as a teenager, both nonfiction and fiction. My tastes were eclectic: Greek mythology, popular science, Japanese and Mexican novelists, military history, and poetry – to mention a few. I have become less eclectic over the years. I now tend to read thrillers, crime fiction, poetry, literary fiction, and history, with an emphasis on military history. My writing influences are diverse. I am a big fan of Yukio Mishima, Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Harris. In terms of what led me thriller writing, I would say that I am a very visual person, and so I tend to see a scene in my mind before I write it. This lends itself to writing thrillers rather than genres which rely heavily on dialogue or the internal life of the characters. I also have a penchant for the dark side, which naturally finds itself at home in thrillers. I am of the opinion, though, that genres are too fixed, and that mixing genres in a novel is perfectly acceptable as long the result is a coherent whole. A literary thriller, for example, can be most satisfying.
PB: As a commercial lawyer you are involved in conflict resolution, but as a writer your books wouldn’t be half as much fun if people sat down and came up with amicable solutions to disputes. Do you enjoy that contrast? Is it a cathartic experience writing thrillers?
GH: If only that were true! Often an amicable solution isn’t possible, I’m afraid. If it were, then the number of mediations would exceed those of court cases, which isn’t the case. By the time someone has instructed a lawyer, often the positions are entrenched. But saying that, I know what you mean. The rule of law is one of the pillars of a civilized society. Without it, we would quickly descend into chaos. Writing thrillers is really a descent into chaos, with the denouement as a way of bringing the world, or at least the world of the surviving characters, back to some kind of order. The contrast is very satisfying and definitely cathartic. On one level, as a writer, it allows me to explore what it is to be human, at least imaginatively, when people are thrust into extraordinary circumstances which are not of their doing. On a deeper level, the thriller and its many offshoots is a modern-day example of those stories people have been telling since ancient times.
PB: Similarly, your novels are action packed and a lot of fun to read; are they as much fun to write?
GH: Fun, yes – and at times disturbing, I have to say. I have vivid dreams when I’m in the groove and although it sounds odd, I have an increased sense of synchronicity. At its best, something happens that tells me I’m not in complete control, in the sense that the story begins to write itself. But, yes, it has to be fun. I don’t sit down and sweat blood, as some writers define the writing process.
PB: The Blameless Dead spans decades but it begins during WWII. Can you tell us a little bit about Kalmykia, Buddhism and the Russian troops in the German army and how that sparks the novel?
GH: I have been studying WWII for perhaps the last 25 years in one way or another. The one thing that struck me was that the Nazis had many supporters, not only in those countries which allied themselves to Germany, but also within those countries that were antagonistic to it. The reasons were complex and often historic. One example was the former Soviet Union, which, of course, was in a pact of nonaggression with Nazi Germany before Hitler invaded the Ukraine. Stalin was a tyrant and his form of communism was brutal and tyrannical. Kalmykia was a soviet state, and Kalmycks originated from Oirats who migrated from the Siberian steppe. Those people were Mongols and Tibetan Buddhists. They kept their historical religion and suffered under communism. When WWII broke out, many Kalmyks joined the Red Army and loyal partisan units, while others saw the Germans as potential liberators and collaborated. Hundreds of thousand of Russians also collaborated, especially those who had fought for the White Army in the Russian Civil War and sections of those ethnic groups who had been persecuted under Stalin. The Kalmyks remain the only area of Europe where Buddhism is the dominant religion. Through my studies of Tibetan Buddhism, it became apparent that, in reality, places like pre-1950 Tibet were not the nonviolent places we in the West were led to believe and, indeed, the Kalmyck cavalry, on both sides of the war, were fearsome warriors.
PB: The Blameless Dead is a dark story that plumbs the depths of human depravity. Is that your world view or just entertainment?
GH: The novel explores several dark themes, for example, the malignant nature of revenge and the indiscriminate nature of state sanctioned mass murder. I read a disturbing and informative book about the German police units who were involved in the mass shootings of over one million Jews in the occupied territories, principally Poland and the Soviet Union. The perpetrators were said to be ‘ordinary men’, who had families and were law enforcement officers before the war. I believe that civilization, as we know it in the West, is a very fragile structure and that within a short period of its dismantling, people would do things they would not have dreamed they were capable of. The history of the last century teaches us this, or it teaches us nothing. So, it is not so much my world view as a reality in certain extreme circumstances. Can such things be entertainment? Only in the broadest sense of the word and only where the order I spoke about is restored. My world view is based on the power of redemption, as opposed to humanity being innately evil. This desire for redemption is a recurring theme in my novels, and is what drives my protagonists.
PB: Similarly, I know it’s a novel, but it has real historical context, so I’m almost afraid to ask just how real the story is. Would you care to comment? Do you enjoy researching your material?
GH: Many of the historical events took place and several of the people referred to are real. For example, what Stalin did to the Kalmyk people during WWII is a fact. But the story and its principal characters are fictious. I do enjoy researching material and do a great deal of research for my novels. Apart from being essential, especially when dealing with emotive themes, it has become something of a hobby and a way for me to continue my education.
PB: The Blameless Dead is a departure from the Tom Dupree novels. It feels like a story you’ve been mulling over for some time. Is that the case? As a standalone novel, was writing it a very different experience to writing a series?
GH: I have been mulling it over for a long time. Perhaps the last ten years. It has taken several forms, but I was never happy with the end result until this incarnation of the story. It was a very different experience, since all the characters and settings were new. The Tom Dupree novels are thrillers, which have elements of political and military sub genres, as well as action and adventure. This novel is longer, more complex, and is divided into two principal timeframes. It was also a physically intense experience, in that it consumed me in a unique manner.
PB: Gabriel’s early motivation for his pro bono defence of Hockey, a murderer, appears to concern raising his profile. The reality is he is far less cynical than that, he is driven by the desire to find his niece, since the girl went missing in his care; he an upright, honourable character. Is that how you see him?
GH: He is a complex character. He represents the everyman who is propelled into a world that is entirely alien to him. He is a physically active man, a mountaineer, but he isn’t physical in the sense that he is ex-military or skilled in martial arts. He has to use his instincts and his intelligence. But he is brave and honourable. His life changes irreversibly in that one moment, and he must bring order back into the world and redeem himself.
PB: The Blameless Dead has an international setting/cast but your main heroes are American; is that just a natural fit?
GH: As stated previously, my literary influences are international and, more often than not, American. Having an American as a protagonist lends itself to an international thriller, but this is not essential. One of the reasons for my choices was driven by the plot. I don’t want to write a spoiler here, but it’s a fact that several thousand Kalmyks migrated to America after WWII. If they had migrated to, say, England, my protagonist may well have been English.
PB: What’s next for you? Is there a third Tom Dupree novel in the pipeline?
GH: I have written two more novels, which I am editing and considering further at present. One is historical and is set in the Middle East in WWI. The other one is a standalone thriller, set in England.
PB: Who are you reading at the moment? Do you have any recommendations for readers?
GH: I have recently finished reading The Long Take, a verse novel by Robin Robertson, and The Yellow Birds, a war novel set in Iraq and the US by Kevin Powers. They are both excellent. If your readers have yet to read The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, which won the 2014 Man Booker Prize, I highly recommend it.
Our thanks to Gary and Paul for this excellent Q&A.
Paul’s review of The Blameless Dead is also published on nbmagazine.co.uk today.
The Blameless Dead by Gary Haynes
Endeavour Quill 9781911445647 pbk Mar 2019