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
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.
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