Friday, March 23, 2012


My guest is mystery/suspense author, Joyce Yarrow. Joyce shares a bit about the background of the latest book in her Jo Epstein Mystery Series, The Last Matryoshka, and the travel she did to give it an authentic feel. 

I had reached a crossroads in my story – actually Jo Epstein’s story. Her Russian émigré stepfather was being pursued by demons from his past that he refused to unmask. Jo’s job was to prove his innocence— the only acceptable outcome given the vulnerable state her mother was in—but Nikolai had made this nigh impossible. His irascible nature and reluctance to share even the most basic information – for example, that he had a sister still living in Moscow—was driving her mad. And just when she finds some clues that might exonerate him, Nikolai foils her once again by fleeing the country.

It was a given that she would follow him – after all, I’m the writer and had planned this all along. But nonetheless, I was not as ready for this transition as I might have been. With shelves crammed with books about everything Russian, and in particular the class of criminals known as the vory, I was as confident of accurately writing the scenes set in Russia as a first-time skier who has mistaken Mt. Everest for the bunny slope.

So I went ahead and bought tickets for my then 16-year-old son and myself from Dublin to Moscow.  We would take our family vacation in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and then my husband would fly back to the States, leaving Ian and me to embark on our adventure.

This was not the first time I had traveled “in Jo’s shoes.” Although I grew up in New York, I live in Seattle and it seems that while I wasn’t looking, someone turned Manhattan into a foreign country. Which was why--during the writing of the first Jo Epstein mystery, Ask the Dead—I took so many trips back home to update myself I would have used up all the visa pages had my passport been required.

Oh yeah – I was talking about Russia. Every place that Ian and I explored in and around Moscow—from the Mayakovsky Metro Station (I loved the Moscow Subway!) to the Suzdal Monastery and the Matryoshka factory in Sergiev Posad—every nook and cranny in the Soviet-style apartment we stayed in near the University—made its way into the book. We were even treated to dinner in a Georgian restaurant by a Commander in the Russian Criminal Police. He blessed the plot I had devised—yes, sometimes we writers do our research and get it right—and then gave me his cell number just in case I had further questions. How lucky was that? And it was fascinating to hear him talk about the days when the vory battled the police in a fair fight and everyone followed the code. No so today!

My son was very tolerant—although he did panic a little when the doors of Vladimir Central Prison clanged shut behind us—the first Americans ever to tour this fearsome place. His paranoia rubbed off on me and Jo ended up spending some unexpected time incarcerated there.

I could have finished The Last Matryoshka using Google Earth and without ever leaving home – after all, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island while he was confined to his bed. But being a neophyte in Moscow alongside Jo was too good a chance to pass up. How else could I have learned that to avoid being recognized as an American in Moscow all one has to do is carry a plastic bag instead of a backpack? Or that certain underground monastery cells were once used to imprison heretics? Where else could I have experienced the chaos of airports where queuing up is for sissies only? And how else could I have met the model for Nikolai’s mysterious sister, Olga, who he wrongly believed had betrayed his parents to the KGB?

  • Have you ever traveled someplace you never dreamed of in order to follow your dream?

  • What's your favorite "travel tip" for blending in with the natives?


Available in hardcover and ebook 
The Last Matryoshka by Joyce Yarrow

A poetry-writing private investigator tries to save her Russian stepfather....

Full-time private investigator/part-time poet Jo Epstein travels to New York and eventually to Russia to help clear her emigre stepfather—who is framing him for murder and who is sending him threatening messages in Russian nesting dolls (matryoshkas). Her investigation takes her on a journey into her stepfather’s past and into the honor-bound code of the “vory,” a Russian criminal syndicate. Excerpt Book trailer

"Intricately layered like the Russian nested doll of the title..." Library Journal


Joyce Yarrow was born in the SE Bronx, escaped to Manhattan as a teenager and now lives in Seattle with her husband and son. Along the way to becoming a full-time author, Joyce has worked as a screenwriter, singer-songwriter, multimedia performance artist and most recently, a member of the world music vocal ensemble, Abráce.

Joyce is a Pushcart nominee, whose stories and poems have been widely published. Her first book, Ask the Dead (Martin Brown 2005), was selected by The Poisoned Pen as a Recommended First Novel and hailed as “Bronx noir”. Her latest book, The Last Matryoshka, takes place in Brooklyn and Moscow. It was published in hardcover by Five Star/Cengage and is now available for Kindle through Istoria Books. (

Joyce considers the setting of her books to be characters in their own right and teaches workshops on "The Place of Place in Mystery Writing."

You can find Joyce on Facebook and at her Website.

You can read more about Joyce Yarrow’s writing journey, her P.I. brother, her childhood in the Bronx, her use of place as character in her books:


Look at other Istoria Books offerings here:
Istoria Books: eBooks You Want to Read at Prices You Want to Pay


Joyce Yarrow said...

Thanks so much for hosting me Sia!

Look forward to making some new friends and discussing the merits of packing one's suitcase when researching international settings... or the joys of traveling in general - or anything else that comes up :)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Joyce and Sia .. that sounds a 'fun' trip with your son .. I'm not sure the prison episode would have suited me!

Wonderful that you could weave your knowledge into your novel and it sounds very interesting .. I've only ever been to Czechoslovakia back in the cold war era .. and have a feel for that time.

I wrote a post about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - the Le Carre novel- film that's out now .. it took me back to England in the 50s and 60s .. and then Eastern Europe too ..

Thanks I hope to read The Last Matryoshka sometime .. good luck for now though .. cheers - Hilary

welcome to my world of poetry said...

Have a super trip with your son, it must be so exciting for you both,


Rusty Webb said...

I've traveled some, although I was in my early 20's and didn't appreciate it. I was too worried about it being a 12 hour train ride to the nearest McDonald's and the lack of places to use the restroom in comfort.

And that was in the former U.S.S.R.

Fiona said...

Dear Sia and Joyce, thank you the article is lovely. The picture of the tea and coffee and your book cover are spectacular.
Una Tiers

Joyce Yarrow said...

Thanks Hilary - Czechoslovakia is definitely on my list of places I'd like to visit!

Thanks Yvonne - yes, there's nothing like travel to bring family together!

Rusty - I can empathize about the restrooms, although have never been a big fan of MacDonalds ha ha - hope you enjoy your next trip.

Una - thanks. Glad you enjoyed the post.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Rusty, I laugh at your comment about McDonalds but I understand it. I had friends assigned to Africa. Family was visiting and they asked that they buy some McDonald's burgers at the last airport before flying into the country they were in. Burgers were cold and slightly dry, but they almost cried when they got them. Yep, they heated them up and ate them.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Hilary, I loved that book. I'll pop by in a bit. Love to see your thoughts on it. :-)

~Sia McKye~ said...

Fiona, I have quite a few international coffee pictures. I also take quite a few pictures of coffee cups and coffee and play around with them, before putting them up here. :-) Glad to see you visit. :-)

Arlee Bird said...

I've been inspired to write about places I've been, but I've yet to travel for the purpose of researching something I was writing about. That would be a definite writing perk.
On another note, I wonder why I've been getting so many friend requests on Google + this past week from Russians. It just seems weird and your post reminded me of that.

An A to Z Co-Host
Tossing It Out
Twitter: @AprilA2Z

Joyce Yarrow said...

Hi Arlee - thanks for stopping by.

Maybe these Russian friend requests are a sign. After I met several Indian writers on Facebook I found myself traveling extensively in that country last year!

Happy travels.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

What a way to do research! Bet that made the whole story come to life for you.

Joyce Yarrow said...

Yes, Alex - when I'm writing a book there is a threshold that I cross and suddenly I am 'living' the story. Traveling to Russia definitely intensified this process and every night, sitting in my room in the apartment where we stayed, I captured as many scenes as I could from the movie playing in my head...

Thanks so much for coming by.
Thanks so much for stopping by.

Saborna said...

Enjoyed this thread very much. I have 4 year old twin daughters. So I can't just pack a suitcase and leave these days. But when I read Joyce's writing....that is eaxctly what I want to do. Leave everything behind and set out for a new adventure in an exotic land. Joyce Yarrow can with the powerful stroke of her pen bring alive a foreign land, thousands of miles away and make us miss it, desire it and at night dream about it. She can make the quotidian... luminous and the mundane... extra-ordinary! Don't miss out on any of Joyce's books. You don't just just read her experience them.

Saborna Roychowdhury

Joyce Yarrow said...

Saborna - what can I say? Speechless writer am I. And after taking a breath, I can add that your book The Distance did the same for me - took me to places in the Indian female psyche I had no idea existed, as well as universal realms where passionate beliefs joust with the practicalities of life.

~Sia McKye~ said...

And that's what we all want as writers, isn't it? To create a world that makes the reader long to be able to visit or wish they could live.

There are authors I love who have created worlds so real, characters that are such a viable community of people,I feel if I could just find it on the map, I could visit in reality. I *visit* their world more than once. I have a lot of them on my keeper shelf. They're the books I love to read numerous times over the years.

Joyce Yarrow said...

Yes, there's nothing like being carried away to storyland.

It's been lovely visiting your world Sia, where the rich aroma of coffee is spiced with the warm wit of friends.

Thanks for your hospitality. And please feel free to stop by my "house" anytime...

All the best,

Jo said...

My travelling days are somewhat behind me, but the joy of seeing new countries and trying out their food (what is this fixation on burgers?) is one of the things which makes life interesting. I never got to Russia although from what I hear I don't think I wanted to in the olden days. Things are different today I gather.

Will look out for your novel, sounds pretty good.

Joyce Yarrow said...

Thanks Jo - I agree that discovering new edibles is one of the great joys of traveling. My favorite meal in Russia was one I shared with a Commander in the Russian Criminal Police in Moscow. We met at a Georgian restaurant in Moscow. The eggplant walnut sauce was rich and fascinating - as were his comments on the roots of the vory criminal subculture... The good Commander became a character in The Last Matryoshka.

Deniz Bevan said...

Ooh, I love that idea of following in the footsteps of your characters. I'd love to sail the Mediterranean the way my character does - in 1492!

Joyce Yarrow said...

Great idea Deniz - I hope you follow your dream! My latest protagonist has taken me to India twice.

A Daft Scots Lass said...

You should put South Africa on your list.

Joyce Yarrow said...

Thanks Scots Lass - I will definitely keep that in mind. Have met some amazing people from S. Africa...