"ALL ABOUT TRUST": AN INTERVIEW WITH BLACK WOLF'S KATHLEEN KENT
After two historicals, novelist Kathleen Kent entered the crime fiction world with her trilogy featuring Betty Rhyzyk, a New York cop transplanted to a Dallas narcotics squad. The books earned her much acclaim. This month, she hits the espionage genre with Black Wolf. Her herione is Melvina Donleavy, a CIA operative with a special skill on her first undercover assignment, tracking loose nukes in post post early nineties Russia. Another threat is serial killer on the streets of Minsk who the crumbling Soviet Union's law doesn't want to admit exists. Both mission and killer put Melvina in a compromised position that threatens her life. Kathleen has some experience in the era and events in Black Wolf and was kind enough to talk with us
The Hard Word: How did the idea of dropping a serial killer story into an espionage thriller come about? Kathleen Kent: While working as a civilian contractor for the Dept. of Defense in Belarus in the early 1990's, I became aware of the arrest in November 1990 of a man named Andrei Chikatilo, aka The Butcher of Rostov. He is perhaps the most prolific serial killer the world has ever seen and is believed to have killed over one hundred women and children. He murdered his way through Russia and Ukraine for over twenty years because Soviet law enforcement refused to believe that multiple murders could be caused by only one man, as this was solely a "Western decadence" problem. As Stalin once said, there is no murder in paradise. Chikatilo was finally caught after the fall of the Berlin Wall when Russian law enforcement was able to gain access to the FBI's profiling methods. The story has always fascinated me, and I thought it would add an extra frisson of tension to my spy thriller. The Svisloch Strangler in Black Wolf was modeled after the real serial killer. HW: You used to work for the CIA, what did you want to get across to the reader about the spy trade? KK: I like to say I was CIA adjacent. Technically I was under the direction of the Dept. of Defense, but I reported to national intelligence agencies such as the CIA and NSA. The US was very much alarmed by the chaos of the splintering Soviet Union and the interest that Iran had in acquiring weapons and fissionable material. My job as project manager was to help facilitate the dismantling and destruction of nuclear weapons, numbering in the tens of thousands in 1990. In fictional spy novels, there is a lot of dangerous action. In reality, my work was one of listening, watching and reporting. I knew that I was constantly followed and watched by Soviet intelligence; all our guides, translators and drivers were KGB. But while in Belarus, I was more concerned with the radiation problem that permeated everything. Over 80% of the country had been irradiated by Chernobyl and the cancer rates and infant mortality were quite alarming. Since retiring as a defense contractor in 2000, I've had occasion to speak to the real clandestine spies who gave me some insight into their experiences while living in the shadows. HW: How did the 1990 setting come about? KK: I became a civilian contractor to the US Dept. of Defense in 1990. I was project manager to a State Department program called the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Simply put, its mission was to turn swords to plowshares: dismantle weapons of mass destructions, and eliminate Russia's biological and chemical stockpiles. I was with the program for 10 years and it probably did more to prevent a nuclear disaster than any other U.S. program while the former Soviet republics went through their reformation. But 1990 was a time of great uncertainty and mistrust with our Soviet counterparts. The perfect tension-filled time and place to set a spy novel. HW: Melvina is an interesting character who you slowly learn about as the story progresses. How did you approach her? KK: I had spent years developing my contemporary crime series (The Dime, The Burn and The Pledge), and it took me a while to get away from Det. Betty Rhyzyk, who has a very fierce, volatile character. I wanted Melvina to be a strong independent woman, but with her own character and personality. It took months for me to formulate a unique protagonist. When I read an article about a British woman named Kelly Hearsey, a "super-recognizer", I knew I'd found the core of Melvina's character. A super recognizer is someone who can see a face once, and forever after recognize it, even in a crowd of thousands, and even if decades have passed. It's very rare; less than 1% of the world's population has this talent. HW: There is an interesting workplace vibe with Melvina's fellow operatives that comes across in the book. What did you want to express in that specialized work dynamic? KK: Intelligence service is all about trust, whether it's with a foreign asset, or especially if its with your team. Melvina is young and on her first mission, assigned with other CIA officers who were experienced field agents. She also was given a higher security classification than her colleagues---Top Secret---and she must keep her super-recognizer abilities secret from them, as well as the Soviets. This causes some further tension within the American team. It takes a particular kind of strength and courage to work in a clandestine way, not only against your adversaries, but against your fellow Americans.
HW: As somebody who was CIA adjacent, what are a couple of things you notice in espionage thrillers where you know someone didn't do their research?
KK: Unless you've worked in intelligence, it's very hard to get it right. The very nature of the CIA is that they're secretive. I know that if you've worked for the Agency, and you write a book about the service, it must be cleared by the agency before it can be published. Fortunately, I didn't have that problem. Everything I wrote about that wasn't from personal experience, was public knowledge. Or at least spy craft that in no way compromised any current or past intelligence efforts.
Kathleen with be at the Dallas Literary Festival March 4th on panel on the Who Dun-it panel with When The Lights Go Out author John Vercher, Details here- https://www.dallasliteraryfestival.org/2023-schedule/panel
You can order Black Wolf at Bosslight Books https://bookshop.org/p/books/black-wolf-kathleen-kent/18603745?ean=97803162802111.