Guest Post: Kyrgyzstan: Creating a Sense of Place by Tom Callaghan

Monday 23 February 2015
Title: A Killing Winter
Author: Tom Callaghan
Publisher: Quercus
Publication Date: 26th February 2015
Pages: 400
Source: Review Copy
Rating: 4.5/5
Purchase: Amazon
‘The Kyrgyz winter reminds us that the past is never dead, simply waiting to ambush us around the next corner’.

When Inspector Akyl Borubaev of Bishkek Murder Squad arrives at the brutal murder scene of a young woman, all evidence hints at a sadistic serial killer on the hunt for more prey.

But when the young woman’s father turns out to be a leading government minister, the pressure is on Borubaev to solve the case not only quickly but also quietly, by any means possible. Until more bodies are found…

Still in mourning after his wife’s recent death, Borubaev descends into Bishkek’s brutal underworld, a place where no-one and nothing is as it seems, where everyone is playing for the highest stakes, and where violence is the only solution.

Kyrgyzstan: Creating a Sense of Place

A sense of place has always been important in a crime novel, whether it’s Ed McBain’s Isola (a thinly-disguised New York), George Pelecanos’ Washington or Elmore Leonard’s Detroit and Miami. By setting a novel in any of these locations, you set yourself the challenge of taking on such masters at their own game.

In addition, you run the risk of knowledgeable readers pointing out that there is no left turn on Fifth Ave and 42nd St, or that the Chinese restaurant in Chapter 4 turned into a Starbucks five years ago.

Not to mention police procedures and legal machinations that may only exist in the writer’s imagination.

All of which partly explains why I chose Kyrgyzstan as the setting of my novel, A Killing Winter, featuring Akyl Borubaev, a Murder Squad Inspector.

But the real reason? It’s a country I love, for its beauty, for its culture, for its people.

Where? you may ask. Kyrgyzstan is a small, landlocked and mountainous country sandwiched between Kazakhstan and China, formerly part of the Soviet Union.

Kyrgyzstan is remote, and plagued with many of the problems that face the former Soviet republics - grinding poverty, economic problems and corruption, often at the highest levels.

It’s ferociously hot during the summer, and in the winter months, temperatures drop down to the minus 20s.

There are occasional ethnic clashes between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbek people, mainly in the south of the country, and having had two revolutions in the last ten years, Kyrgyzstan is an unsettled, and often unsettling place - ideal for a crime writer.

But it’s also a unique place; you won’t find McDonalds or Next or The Gap there.

What you will find is Lake Issy-Kul, the second largest Alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca, that stretches across half of Kyrgyzstan, heading up towards the Tien Shan, the Celestial Mountains that create a formidable snowcapped border with China.

On the lakeside, you might encounter a shy Kyrgyz girl in a brightly coloured headscarf selling fresh cherries, tied together with cotton, then threaded onto wire, to hang dense as bunches of grapes.

Venture as far as the weekly animal market outside Karakol, and watch locals struggle to push their reluctant sheep into the back seat of elderly Moskvitch cars, while outside Bokonbaevo, men in traditional dress ride out with their hunting eagles, capable of killing the wolves that come down from the mountains in winter.

In the capital, Bishkek, you could attend a concert at the Opera House, and listen to traditional singing and folk music played on the three-stringed komuz., or stroll through the star-shaped Panfilov Park, eating ice-cream or drinking Baltika beer.

A trip from Bishkek to Tokmok takes you to the 10th century Burana Tower, spared by Jengis Khan as he stormed through the Chui valley.

Drive over the spectacular mountain range and down towards the Fergana Valley, to the ancient Silk Road city of Osh, and stay overnight in a yurt, eating pelmini dumplings or plov mutton stew.

Visit the world’s only natural walnut forest at Arslanbob, and shop for locally-grown apples in Jalalabad.

Talas is famous as the birthplace of Manas, the country’s great hero and defender, whose epic adventures are recited by manaschi bards who memorise and recite the longest oral poem in the world.

And everywhere you go, people smile and children practice their English on you.

A Killing Winter gave me the opportunity to combine all these elements into a novel which tries to convey the beauty of the country and the unique culture of its people.

A Killing Winter is a crime novel, yes, but it’s also a tribute to one of the world’s least-known countries.

Tom Callaghan (

A Killing Winter is published by Quercus on 26 February 2015, and will be followed by the second Akyl Borubaev novel, A Spring Betrayal.

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