After writing Diamond, a nonfiction book on the allure of diamonds and the complexities of the international market and constant demand for them, journalist Matthew Hart has returned to familiar territory for his debut thriller. The Russian Pink follows U.S. Treasury operative Alex Turner as he explores the shady provenance of the titular diamond, which leads him to uncover a tangled web of fraud, crime and possibly treason.
We asked Hart why diamonds continue to fascinate him, how he kept all the double- and triple-crosses straight and whether we can expect more from Alex Turner.
What first drew you to the subject of diamonds, and what made you decide to return to this territory in fiction?
Diamonds are a parallel universe, and its enchantments are addictive. My baptism came when explorers put a drill through the ice of a frozen lake in the Canadian Arctic and discovered diamonds. I began to cover the diamond rush that followed and met people like Eira Thomas, a 24-year-old geologist on her first job. In a race against melting springtime ice, with water literally sloshing around her drill shack, Eira kept drilling long after her bosses had told her to quit, and struck the richest diamond pipe in that rich field.
Once I started writing about diamonds, I was drawn into the arcane world that gives them meaning. Suddenly I found myself visiting places like the bleak and staggeringly rich Namibian diamond coast, the polishing factories of India, the secretive headquarters of the London-based De Beers cartel. In that world, an object the size of a pea can be worth $10 million. It’s a world as much of the illusory as of the real, so it seemed natural to stay there when I turned to fiction.
“[Diamonds are] enthralling because the people who run the business make sure they are.”
Alex Turner is an interesting hero in that he really navigates a legal—and possibly ethical—gray space. Do you consider him an antihero?
If you mean flawed, sure. Alex lost his mother as a boy and grew up with an unloving father in African diamond camps. He was 22 when the CIA blackmailed him into working for them. So he has a pretty chilly sense of how things work. In the pursuit of people who are really bad, he won’t hesitate to cross into the outlaw world they try to hide in. He knows that world as well as they do.
But you raise the issue of ethics, and that’s important. Alex is cynical, but he knows what’s right and wrong. I think the reader can detect that some ballast keeps him even as he navigates the betrayals and treacheries of transnational crime. He loves his daughter, and while evil people can love their kids, too, the reader can recognize in Alex’s struggles with his own failures a man striving for at least integrity.
It seems like everyone surrounding Alex has an ulterior motive. How did you keep track of all the crosses and double crosses (and sometimes triple crosses)?
Oh, boy. I started with big sheets of newsprint pinned to the corkboard, with little squiggles to represent each character and boxes with coded shorthand to describe crucial plot points. Then I’d draw in arrows to show how the characters were going to deceive each other. I would fill in the whole sheet, fighting off my own growing confusion at the tangled mess. In the end I’d tear it off and start in again with a fresh sheet. Same result. Finally, I just waded in and let the characters take care of themselves as I wrote. If you understand their motives and objectives, and you know where they have to end up, I think it’s better to take the deceptions page by page, as the characters advance through the story.
Elements of this book felt very timely, including a fraught presidential election with possible Russian interference. Were you inspired by current events?
I set the book in the midst of a presidential campaign to give the plot two things: one, a ticking clock; and two, a climate of moral warfare. The story takes energy from that weather, when partisan passions are high. In that turbulence, it’s easy to imagine the powerful and rich—already wealthier than ever before in history—seizing the chaotic moment to get even richer.
The diamond known as the Russian Pink is almost a character in itself. Why do you think people are so enthralled with diamonds?
They’re pretty cool when you look at them up close, for one thing, and then there’s the whole romantic history stacked up behind them—the Koh-i-Noor and the Hope Diamond. But mostly they’re enthralling because the people who run the business make sure they are. I’ll give you an example. Oscar night, 1998. Gwyneth Paltrow won best actress for Shakespeare in Love. She appeared on stage in a $160,000 diamond necklace designed by Harry Winston. By the time the night was out Winston had 25 firm orders for copies of that necklace. And that’s not all. That same night on that same stage, Whoopi Goldberg and Geena Davis were also blazing away with fabulous diamonds. But here’s the real point. None of the three women actually owned the stones they were wearing. Every diamond was a loaner from Harry Winston. Basically, the stars were the jeweler’s billboards. Royalty does the same thing for diamonds. They invest the stones with the sacred aura of the divine right of kings. In the Tower of London, the longest lines are at the Jewel House, where the Crown Jewels are on display.
This is the first thriller I’ve read with a U.S. Treasury agent as a protagonist. How did you research that job?
Alex works for the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network—FinCEN—a bureau of the U.S. Treasury. They’re a secretive operation that reports to the Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. I read all I could about them. FinCEN’s mission is to safeguard the financial system from hostile powers and prevent criminal activities like money laundering. The Treasury has very powerful punitive measures available to enforce its interests, such as cutting off a bank’s access to the U.S. system, effectively ruining it. I simply created a super-secret agency of FinCEN—Special Audits—whose agents step outside the normal strictures of the law in their pursuit of the country’s most dangerous enemies.
In the acknowledgements, you mention the Hemlo gold rush and the Arctic diamond rush. Did those events inspire this novel in any way?
A mineral rush is the ultimate quest story. The searchers follow clues and discover the treasure. The Russian Pink moves with that wind under its sails, too. Their aim is to discover the truth behind the jewel, and part of that truth must be where it came from.
Are you considering an Alex Turner series, or will this book be a standalone?
I’ve just sent the sequel off to my editor! While I’m waiting for her notes, I’m working on the plot for number three. Alex and Slav Lily are keeping me company.