The release party for Brent Ghelfi's The Venona Cable packed the ballroom at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. There were so many people it was hard to get near Brent for the book signing before the actual program began. The Poisoned Pen Bookstore and Lisa Ghelfi worked together for the party, providing desserts, drinks, and tables with Russian nesting dolls.
Since the Arizona Biltmore is celebrating its 80th birthday this year, and the Poisoned Pen is celebrating its 20th, they have partnered for four programs. Brent Ghelfi's release party was the first one. Sept. 1 is CSI: Phoenix with Dr. Kathy Reichs signing 206 Bones, followed by Jack Ballentine, author of Murder for Hire, introducing Camille Kimball, author of The Phoenix Serial Killer for her book release. On Sept. 22, Diana Gabaldon will sign her new Outlander novel, Echo in the Bone. The event will even feature a piper. On Nov. 14, John Sandford hosts a Guys Night, a party with Martin Limon, Thomas Perry, James Rollins, and Don Winslow.
Following the announcement of upcoming events, Barbara Peters, owner of
the Poisoned Pen, introduced Brent Ghelfi by quoting Lee
Child. "Brent Ghelfi writes like Dostoevsky's hooligan great-grandson on speed." Brent responded that he was grateful. Not only is Lee Child a bestselling author, but he is a gentleman, and very supportive of other authors. He was very supportive of Ghelfi's first book, Volk's Game. That support is one of the nicest things Child can do for another author. Peters said Volk's Game was the Poisoned Pen's bestselling book of 2007.
Barbara mentioned that, naturally, Ghelfi was influenced by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but she understood there was another author who was a bigger influence. According to Brent, people thing of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, but Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was a greater influence. One of the characters is a prison guard, Lieutenant Volkovi, a character no one likes. Ghelfi picked that name, Alexei Volkovoy, for his character.
When asked who else he reads, Ghelfi said he reads almost everything. Naturally, he reads Martin Cruz Smith. But, James Sallis influenced, and helped him. He started reading Sallis in 1990-91, when he wandered into the Poisoned Pen, and Barbara suggested a book. When he returned, she asked what he thought, and he said it was a little light; he wanted something more...And, she said I have an author for you. She gave him one of Sallis' books. Since Sallis was at the party, Brent said he wanted to acknowledge him, saying, in his opinion, he was the most likely candidate to win a National Book Award. Brent said Sallis taught him all he knows about writing.
Barbara Peters said as long as they were discussing Sallis and Ghelfi together, she wanted to mention that Maricopa County is doing Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury for this year's Big Read. She's hoping to have Sallis and Ghelfi do a program together about the book. She said she has a whole new life planned for Brent since he acted as host for Clive Cussler and James Rollins, and did such a wonderful job.
Peters told Ghelfi that his books, set in Chechnya, almost seemed as if they were written from today's headlines. According to Brent, in 1995, Grozny, Chechnya had a population of 600,000. After the Russian tanks rolled in, only 50,000 people lived there, most of them in burned out buildings. Chechnya has been fought over for years. Tolstoy wrote about Russians invading Chechnya. Recently, a human rights advocate was accosted, dragged away, and shot in the back of the head. Her purse, with contacts intact, was left by her body. It was strictly an assassination. Volk is a part of that Chechen politics. Modern Russia is a place where history, life, politics, and religion collide. The outlandish stories that come out of Russia are true.
Ghelfi's first book, Volk's Game, was his art book, about lost da Vinci painting from the Hermitage Museum. Volk's Shadow is his Chechen book. The new book, The Venona Cable, deals with untold stories of World War II. The British and the Americans deciphered cables sent back and forth from Russia. They were able to identify spies. The Soviets had the greatest spy apparatus in the world, after the Revolution until the '90s. So, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia was the jumping off point for this book.
If you go to the NSA's website, and search Venona, you can find stories of 1943. Roosevelt and Churchill had a private meeting, with just a couple other people in attendance. Stalin knew the result of that meeting before anyone else, including Congress. They made the decision not to open up the second front. The actual cable is reproduced on Brent's book, altered just a little.
There's a Hollywood film director in the book, who is a foil to talk about Hollywood and the Communist Party in the U.S.A. A number of people from Hollywood explored Communism in the 50s and 60s, and some ended up on the Hollywood blacklist. Ghelfi explores a little of that history in the book. And, the story includes Volk's father, a veteran of the Cold War air wars.
Peters said it was strange to read this book, back-to-back with Joseph Kanon's forthcoming book, Stardust. (Kanon appears at the Poisoned Pen on October 14.) That book deals with a Hollywood director in 1944, and the beginning of the blacklist. Kanon sets his book in 1944, and Ghelfi writes his book looking back at that period.
Ghelfi asked how many in the audience grew up thinking the Rosenbergs might have been innocent. He said they were not. Julius had a darkroom, and he actively recruited spies. Ethel probably knew about it, and, allegedly typed the notes. The U.S. had the Venona Cable saying this. Julius was a spy.
When Peters mentioned that Ghelfi's books were anchored in history, she said Volk's Game dealt with da Vinci, Volk's Shadow has a stolen Faberge egg, this one deals with the Venona Cable. Brent said he likes to start with something that actually happened.
He went on to say that Russian life seems to change very little. There's a saying, "Joseph Stalin straddled the oceans and filled the skies." The people yearn for that kind of powerful figure, which is why Putin is so popular.
Peters said a killer thriller also has to have sex. Ghelfi went on to talk about Valya, Volk's lover. They have a stressful relationship. She is a Chechen refugee. The tribes turned on each other in Chechnya. Valya was one of the disenfranchised tribes. They have a stormy relationship. She's unpredictable, and it's a surprising relationship.
When asked what was next, Ghelfi said the fourth book in the series is in the works. It's due to his publisher in late October. It deals with Russia's terrible record with nuclear technology. They had one plant explode in 1957, before Chernobyl, but they not only denied the explosion, they denied the plant existed. Gary Power's u2 was headed to take pictures of it when he was shot down. The book is tentatively titled The Burning Lake.
Before turning the questions over to the audience, Barbara Peters said discovering new authors is one of the pleasures she shares with her staff. She said Brent Ghelfi is one of the finest new writers she's read because he entertains, and makes you think.
The first question was whether Ghelfi's books were available on e-books. He said no. All three are available on Kindle. He said the first two are also unabridged audios, but he doesn't know when The Venona Cable will come out.
He was asked how we learned about the Venona Cable, and he said American researchers in Moscow found out through Russian KGB files. They also learned about American Communist spies there. In 1995, those researchers brought it back to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who chaired the Commission on Government Secrecy. Moynihan secured the release of the FBI's Venona files. Researchers know dates and times from the KGB files.
Barbara reminded everyone that Russia was our ally during WWII. In the 1930s, many people embraced Communism as an ideal. Ghelfi told the story of The Lost Spy by Andrew Meier. It's the true story of a Princeton/Yale graduate who was caught up in Stalin's secret service. They arrested him, sentenced him for being a double spy, and sentenced him to seven years of hard labor. He was released exactly seven years later. But, he was immediately picked up, taken someplace, tortured, and killed. Meier's book includes notes from Stalin saying he needs to die. But, at that time, people who believed in Communism, such as that idealistic young man, thought they were working to build a brave new world.
Someone asked when the movie was coming out. Brent said Volk's Game has been optioned, and it even has a script. But, there's a slim to none chance of filming unless a major star, director or producer wants to get it made. When asked who should play Volk, he said he could see Jason Statham in the first two books, and
Clive Owen, as he appeared in Inside Man, in the third.
He was asked if there has been any interest in publishing his book in Russia. Brent responded that it's unlikely to get a Russian language publisher because he's critical of Putin, but it has been published on the Western edge of Russia, in Poland and Czechoslovakia.
Before returning to sign books, Brent Ghelfi ended the program by thanking everyone, particularly his wife, Lisa.
Brent Ghelfi's website is www.brentghelfi.com
The Venona Cable by Brent Ghelfi. Henry Holt, ©2009. ISBN 9780805088946 (hardcover), 336p.