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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

BOOKWORM: Cream of Mediocre Fiction

The best of 1998-1999, continued.

Modern Russian mass literature

There's no single winner here for the simple reason that the queen of the genre, Alexandra Marinina, has not published anything new this year. Perhaps the general public is fed up with her mediocre novels. Or perhaps her mostly female reading audience has gladly switched to a similar product, supplied by several of Marinina's livelier and more passionate colleagues, like Polina Dashkova, Yelena Yakovleva and Marina Sedova.

As for the male audience - fans of the "Russian thriller" - their appetite has been well sated by the innumerable works of a single author, Fridrich Neznansky (and, cynics say, a team of his ghost writers).

Some readers may remember "Red Square," a great political thriller of the early 1980s written by Neznansky in collaboration with a fellow emigr?, Eduard Topol. It first came out in English and was then translated into just about every civilized language under the sun. When it was published in Munich in the authors' native Russian, it became the single favorite title to be smuggled into Soviet Russia. I personally did it twice, with both the English and Russian versions - they differed enormously.

Since that time, Topol and Neznansky have written their novels individually, selling millions of copies and retaining the public's affection. New York-based Topol's latest and most successful novel, "New Russia In Bed," is a riveting collection of juicy stories about the sexual habits of post-Soviet Russians. Neznansky now lives in Germany, but still manages to publish books in Russia at the rate of two 500-page novels a month. They are continuations of his two successful series' of crime thrillers, one starring an investigator, the other a barrister. Does the man never sleep or does he have 20 hands?

Writing about mass culture bestsellers, it would be remiss not to mention Mikhail Veller. Twenty five years ago, after graduating from Leningrad State University, Veller moved to Tallinn, saying he would not return until he was a famous short story writer. The capital of Estonia was known in Soviet times as something of a refuge from ideological oppression. It suited Veller well: Several years later, his first locally published collection of short stories became a huge success among the true gourmets of quality fiction all over the U.S.S.R., and the book was as sought-after in Moscow as "Red Square."

Still writing from Estonia, Veller has published regularly in Russia in the 1990s, with combined printruns of several million copies. His latest hit here is the second volume of "Tales of Nevsky Prospekt," cheerful short stories and sketches about the inhabitants of Veller's beloved St. Petersburg.