We all have our view of the Russians these days. Those whacky oligarchs colluding and trolling. Those cards. So why are they in Second Hand Goods?
But back in the early 2000s, when we all figured Putin would be gone in a few years like everyone else, I needed a big bad gang to fill space that the Mafia would have occupied years earlier. Enter the Russians.
There never really was an institution called the “Russian Mafia.” There were a lot of well-connected shadowy types, some businessmen, some criminals or ex-Soviet types taking advantage of the chaos of the 90s combined with sudden access to Western cash. It never had rules or romanticism the way La Cosa Nostra did. And I used to know a former knockaround guy for the Bonanos in New York. Glad he got out. He’s way too smart for that kind of work.
Since Cleveland is still a heavily Slavic town, Russian mobsters made perfectly good big baddies for Val to punk and Nick to battle. So I invented Nikolai Karpov, aka The Antichrist.
There’s a built-in pun to his name and moniker. Karpov is a dig at the Left Behind series, in which the actual Antichrist turns out to be an annoying male model with the absurd name of Nicolae Carpathia. I slogged through three of those books (which are awful, but I’ve always enjoyed a good trainwreck) before realizing I could have wasted time on Twilight instead. The then spousal unit loved them, but I couldn’t stand the books and decided to lift the name. Like a lot of subtle jokes, it was never intended to last into the second draft.
This Antichrist, so dubbed because he is ruthless. Karpov, though, is a jaded ex-KGB agent who sees governments as a necessary evil and organized crime as a type of business that does not have the benefit of the law to operate. Sure, that’s the same as “illegal,” but it’s all in the semantics, isn’t it?
So Karpov is basically a business man who is into money laundering, smuggling, and probably protection and loan sharking. If The Wire, which basically rearranged and fictionalized real-life criminal and bureaucratic dysfunction, taught us anything, it’s that excluding drugs from the equation is naive at best. I didn’t mention them not because I had some idealistic notion that Karpov was a “good criminal.” Instead, I left out that and human trafficking (another hobby of Russian criminal types) because I needed Karpov to be more sympathetic. That, and I was unaware of human trafficking to the degree it’s talked about now. If Karpov was merely the supplier of forbidden fruit with violent employees, I could sell him as an “extralegal businessman.”
Contrast that with Holland Bay, now making rounds, where Karpov is someone who needs to be taken down whether the reader connects with him or not. (Karpov’s not a character in that book, but there’s a Karpov type who is very much American.) For Second Hand Goods, he’s also a way for Kepler to get soiled at a time he’s trying not to be. Karpov likes Kepler because he’s a good guy willing to do legitimate work, and it makes the Russian feel like he’s closer to legitimate. Nick is, despite his best efforts, drawn to Karpov and his muscle Sergei because, despite their criminal lifestyle, they do have something of a code. And, as Karpov points out to Nick, he’s not exactly the boy scout he thinks he is, especially as things heat up between him and Elaine.