Snowdrops begins with a corpse. The book’s narrator, Nick Platt, is an English lawyer working in Russia during the oil boom. He is in his late thirties, single, uninspired by work, insipid in personality. Then he meets the lithe, much-younger Masha on the subway. Soon, his visits to strip joints and sleazy bars are replaced by a cosy domesticity. But Masha is not what she seems. As one character points out: ‘In Russia there are no business stories. And there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories.’
‘Opening the book [with a dead body] raises expectations of a high body count or a traditional thriller narrative,’ says Miller, 38, sitting in the cosy comforts of a café in north London where he now lives with his wife and two children. Yet, as he points out, Snowdrops has no scenes of actual violence. Savagery lingers in questions not asked, crimes not investigated, people gone missing. Most significantly, the ‘snowdrops’ of the title refer not only to ‘the bleakness of life in Russia for some vulnerable members’ – the drunks and the homeless who die on the streets in Moscow’s unforgiving winters – but also the nastier recesses of humanity Nick discovers dormant in himself.
‘Nick says towards the end of the book that the real snowdrop is him and the end of his last winter is himself – and aspects of his own personality which he had resisted,’ explains Miller. ‘Writing about foreigners living abroad is a good way to write about morality. They are in these liberating environments where the gloves and the mask can come off.’
Snowdrops is also a less-than-flattering depiction of Moscow itself. This is a city rampant with corrupt police, gangster oil barons, prostitutes and sexed-up expats relayed through the jaundiced memory of its narrator. ‘It’s a view of Moscow through the eyes and experiences of this fairly louche, lonely, drifting guy,’ says Miller, who – unlike his protagonist – comes across as cheerful and direct. ‘It’s quite a sexualised place. Puritanical, it ain’t.’
Andrew Miller (he uses his initials to avoid confusion with another author of the same name) first became a correspondent in Russia in 2004. ‘We stayed in a hotel near the Kremlin, we went to a bar made of ice where you drink from glasses made of ice, and we thought: How bad can it be?’ he recalls. He describes Moscow as a cross between ‘Stockholm and Las Vegas’, a European-style city that has ‘a bit more neon and quite a lot more Hummers than you might find in London’.
Corruption is all-encompassing. In Snowdrops, Nick half-heartedly tries to report the disappearance of his neighbour’s friend. On the policemen’s desk is a sign: ‘I cannot drink flowers or chocolates.’ Perversely, Nick, in one of many murky missteps leading to his moral downfall, chooses not to bribe the police, leaving the file closed.
‘If you live in a very corrupt place, and Russia is absolutely corrupt, you are very likely to encounter corruption,’ elaborates Miller. ‘A lot of Westerners in Moscow could go down the road: “If I just grease the right palm I’ll be able to open my restaurant, get to the airport on time.” This book is not about naive foreigners and corrupt Russians. It is about corruptibility and how people can come to behaviour they never would have expected [if given] the right lie and incentives.’
It has to be asked: how much of the novel comes from direct experience? ‘I certainly met a lot of men whose moral sense was eroded through temptation and estrangement,’ Miller admits. ‘A lot of expats behave as if they are on an extended holiday, as if it’s just a theme park in which their actions don’t have consequences.’
But, Miller is quick to add, his life was quite different. ‘I wasn’t involved in any murder or grand acts of larceny,’ he says with an apologetic smile. ‘I am such a boring figure by comparison. I travelled to lots of interesting places and met lots of interesting people, I just didn’t go to bed with them or kill them. That wasn’t part of my Moscow life.’