Violent, Sinister and Believable

Evil scientists try out a top-secret psychotropic weapon on an unsuspecting neighborhood, setting off a wave of murder and mayhem.

A former intelligence agent blackmails politicians with dossiers full of compromising material.

Dastardly publishers keep a crippled writer virtually hostage to ensure a steady flow of books, unaware that a vicious tax inspector is about to make their business his prey.

These aren't the latest headlines from the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets. They are the violent, sinister, corrupt -- and therefore, utterly believable -- Russia of Alexandra Marinina, the country's premier detective novelist. Since 1991, Marinina has written 19 books, which together have sold over 3 million copies. In a clever combination of successful detective series-writing -- believable plots, fallible heroes and good guys who survive for a sequel -- Marinina pits sleuth Anastasiya Kamenskaya against modern, crime-ridden Russia.

Marinina's success is part of a renaissance of a genre that has strong local roots. Dostoevsky, after all, is one of the grandfathers of the modern detective novel, although the Soviet regime played down the importance of his works because of his nationalism and right-wing views. The Soviets also deemed detective novels to be a pursuit unsuitable for proletariat writers, and for seven decades the mass reader saw only such politically correct imports as U.S. detective writer James Headley Chase, who described a mean-spirited, corrupt America. Local talents like Eduard Topol and Felix Neznansky were forced to publish underground or abroad.

Glasnost liberated detective writing, but popular fiction imports, such as poor translations of Tom Clancy and Sidney Sheldon, quickly dominated the market. When Russians began craving detective novels with local flavor, several authors rushed to fill the void. Curiously, many of them were police officers. Marinina, in fact, is actually Lieutenant Colonel Marina Alexeyeva by day, a criminologist at the Moscow Academy of the Interior Ministry, heading a department that studies trends in violent crime.

While Marinina's prose is not to be confused with Dostoevsky's, beneath her lurid book covers and gruesome tales are lines that capture aspects of the Russian mentality, such as the resigned fascination with the rampant crime that surrounds them.

"The mafia is immortal, of course, although investigators can make themselves useful, too," a colleague tells Kamenskaya in "Stolen Dream," the story of a renegade former KGB officer who controls politicians through an intimate knowledge of the skeletons in their closets. "The weak will die, the strong will live. You will always coexist side by side. They won't break you, but you can't crush them either."

After Marinina, Russia's second-most successful detective writer is Nikolai Leonov, whose Inspector Gurov series features such plausible plots as a circle of corrupt Kremlin cronies who set off a bomb on a crowded bus in Moscow to prolong their money-laundering operation in the war in Chechnya.

Some authors, such as Andrei Bezuglov and Eduard Khrutsky, write for readers nostalgic for the Soviet days. Their heroes are hardworking police and KGB officers who heroically stave off the evil intentions of Russia's seedy new rich while suffering unrequited love. They indulge in kitschy lines such as "Boris, get ahold of yourself. ... Remember, you are a Communist!"

"In these detective novels, you see everything about Russia today," says Igor Sopikov, the head of Eksmo publishers, which prints the Marinina and Leonov series. "Corruption, godfathers, the narco-mafia, Russian prostitutes being sold in the West, the breakdown of the army. The only difference is that in the books, the bad guys are punished."