The Bishkek files

In­spec­tor Akyl Borubaev re­turns in A Spring Be­trayal, a thriller about child abuse and mur­der in Kyr­gyzs­tan. John Den­nehy meets writer Tom Cal­laghan

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In­spec­tor Akyl Borubaev of the Bishkek Mur­der Squad is back pac­ing his post-Soviet beat. It’s a dark world of low-life crim­i­nals, for­mer Soviet stooges, Stal­in­ist hous­ing blocks, ex-Afghan war vet­er­ans and po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion that goes all the way to the top.

But where ex­actly, you might ask, is Bishkek? It’s the cap­i­tal of a small, moun­tain­ous, land­locked coun­try bor­dered by China, Kaza­khstan, Uzbek­istan and Tajikistan.

Once an im­por­tant stop on the Silk Road, to­day Kyr­gyzs­tan, with a pop­u­la­tion of more than five­and-a-half mil­lion, suf­fers from poverty and po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity; it has un­der­gone two rev­o­lu­tions in a decade. Is­lam is the main re­li­gion. It’s also the set­ting for a new se­ries of crime nov­els by English-born au­thor Tom Cal­laghan, and his lat­est, A Spring Be­trayal, was pub­lished by Quer­cus last month.

The books do not just rep­re­sent the emer­gence of a new lit­er­ary tal­ent but also an in­tro­duc­tion to a new lit­er­ary land­scape.

Both works fol­low Borubaev as he trudges though the Kyr­gyz un­der­world and at­tempts to solve a se­ries of grisly crimes. But whereas last year’s A Killing Win­ter hinged on po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial cor­rup­tion, A Spring Be­trayal is more per­sonal.

Borubaev, along with an Uzbeki un­der­cover agent called Sal­tanat Umarova (no one-di­men­sional femme fa­tale but an in­de­pen­dent woman who saves Borubaev’s life), in­ves­ti­gate the deaths of sev­eral chil­dren af­ter bodies are found dumped in a grave.

“You could make up vir­tu­ally any story and some­thing worse will have hap­pened in Kyr­gyzs­tan,” Cal­laghan tells me, when I meet him at Dubai’s BurJu­man Centre.

The grisly dis­cov­ery leads Borubaev to the coun­try’s net­work of aus­tere or­phan­ages, which, in turn, leads to a hor­rific child abuse scan­dal im­pli­cat­ing a pow­er­ful busi­ness­man. “When the Soviet Union col­lapsed, lots of peo­ple sim­ply couldn’t af­ford their chil­dren and put them there,” Cal­laghan says.

Borubaev wants to bring his sus­pect in for ques­tion­ing. But a top Kyr­gyz min­is­ter ad­mon­ishes him: “He has brought trade here, brings for­eign cur­rency in, pro­vides jobs, even med­i­cal care and hous­ing.”

Such moral and eth­i­cal dilem­mas are cen­tral to A Spring Be­trayal – all the op­tions are bad but which is the least bad? As Cal­laghan tells me: “I think I side with Akyl.”

Why has he cho­sen to set his se­ries in Kyr­gyzs­tan? Cal­laghan was once married to a Kyr­gyz woman, his step­son lives there and he reg­u­larly trav­els to the coun­try. Now the thriller writer is mainly based in Dubai and has just ap­peared at the Emi­rates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture for the sec­ond year run­ning. I ask him why he chose to write about crime.

“I don’t want to write about a mid­dle class af­fair in Hamp­stead that goes wrong. Think about the Panama Pa­pers, with ev­ery­one laun­der­ing money all over the place. Think of the drug trade. Think of the con­stant sur­veil­lance we are all un­der, from CCTV to satel­lites.

“We live in a para­noid, big brother, all-ob­serv­ing world. The kind of world we live in is geared to crime.”

But it’s also the unique Kyr­gyz land­scape, along with the cus­toms and habits of the peo­ple, that in­spired him to set the books there. And a chang­ing way of life. “I like to think I’ve painted a vivid picture of Bishkek but it’s a one-sided picture. There are ex­pen­sive houses; there are a lot of ex­pen­sive cars. Every time I go back there are more and more signs in English – near one of the bars I drink in there’s a Nathan’s [an Amer­i­can restau­rant chain] – I of­ten ask my­self: how did that end up there? There isn’t a McDon­ald’s or a Burger King but there will be.”

Before his life as a crime writer, Cal­laghan spent about 30 years work­ing as a copy­writer in Lon­don, New York, Philadel­phia and else­where. He came to Dubai al­most 17 years ago and has wit­nessed the re­lent­less growth of the city from a clus­ter of build­ings around the Creek to its now vast swaths stretch­ing down the Sheikh Zayed Road as far as Jebel Ali. And Dubai is set for a star­ring role in the third in­stal­ment of what he has dubbed the “Kyr­gyz quar­tet”.

“Dubai is an in­cred­i­bly wealthy city but where there’s wealth, other peo­ple will try to take it. I’m sure it’s the same in Abu Dhabi.”

The third book will be di­vided be­tween Kyr­gyzs­tan and the emi­rate, with the spot­light shift­ing to peo­ple traf­fick­ing. One of the re­al­i­ties of life in the UAE is the sharp con­trast be­tween the haves and have-nots. Labour­ers from coun­tries such as Pak­istan and Bangladesh can make as lit­tle as Dh600 a month work­ing on con­struc­tion sites in swel­ter­ing heat and still man­age to send money home, while oth­ers live in com­fort­able vil­las, em­ploy maids and drive high-pow­ered 4x4s.

This jar­ring jux­ta­po­si­tion will be, ac­cord­ing to Cal­laghan, one of the most in­ter­est­ing parts of the third book. With­out giv­ing too much away, In­spec­tor Borubaev will make a visit to Dubai Mall and the cul­ture shock is enor­mous.

Borubaev is not an un­worldly char­ac­ter – quite the op­po­site – and some of the scenes he stum­bles across in A Spring Be­trayal are par­tic­u­larly grue­some. But what hap­pens when some­one with noth­ing en­coun­ters stag­ger­ing wealth? This is an im­por­tant ques­tion for Cal­laghan.

“The tallest build­ing in Bishkek is 12 storeys high and then you see the Burj Khal­ifa. There is a scene where he is walk­ing in the Dubai Mall and the se­cu­rity guards are fol­low­ing him be­cause he is in this shabby suit and shabby shoes straight off some grim peg. And there he is look­ing at shoes that cost more than his year’s salar y,” he says.

“When the av­er­age per­son in Kyr­gyzs­tan is lucky if they earn US$200 (Dh735) a month and when you go into Ver­sace and see a hand­bag for $4,000 – what sort of re­sponse do you have to that? Do you think: that’s me stuffed or do you think, I’m go­ing to work hard to buy one?”

Cal­laghan will give noth­ing else away and we will have to wait un­til the book is pub­lished to out what hap­pens.

John Den­nehy is deputy editor of The Re­view.

Rees for The Na­tional; Cour­tesy Johnny Haglund Re­becca

Tom Cal­laghan lives in Dubai but is a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to Kyr­gyzs­tan, where his thrillers are set. Above, the coun­try’s cap­i­tal Bishkek.

A Spring Be­trayal Tom Cal­laghan Quer­cus Dh43

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