SALT LAKE CITY — International espionage, high-stake conspiracies and Russian mobsters — they’re the perfect ingredients for a political thriller, which is why former BYU student Val Karren used those ideas as the basis of his début fiction novel, "The Deceit of Riches" (Fly-By-Night Press, 349 pages).
But those elements are more than mere fiction to Karren — they’re rooted in his real-life experiences.
"I just had to get it on paper," Karren said.
Serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ukraine introduced an itch for international travel into Karren’s life. That itch eventually prompted him to leave Brigham Young University and, in 1995, begin his education anew at a state university in Russia’s western city of Nizhny Novgorod.
It wasn’t long before he met Utah businessman Mike Ramsdell, who was in Russia exploring possible real estate ventures — or so Karren thought. What Karren didn’t know (and wouldn’t learn until much later) was that Ramsdell was actually an undercover CIA operative stationed in Nizhny Novgorod to keep an eye on the Russian arms industry.
"I really looked up to him as a kind of guiding father figure," Karren said. "He was there doing what I wanted to be doing, pioneering business in the new free Russia … So much of what I knew about him then wasn’t true."
And so Karren didn’t hesitate to assist Ramsdell in a real estate side project, independent of Ramsdell’s CIA work. But they didn’t realize that they were placing themselves in competition with the Russian mafia, which had its fingers in similar business ventures. Before they knew it, the two were in danger.
"There had been a big break-in at (Ramsdell’s) apartment, and that’s when all the dots started to connect," Karren said. "They didn’t take anything; they didn’t hurt (Ramsdell and his wife) … they just wanted to scare them. And so Mike said to me, 'If they figure out we’re in competition together, they will not hesitate to use violence against us.'"
After that, it didn't take Karren long to leave Russia at Ramsdell’s prompting.
"You get that sinking feeling in your gut of, 'this is real, isn’t it?'" he said.
It would take eight years before Karren finally had a full picture of what had happened in Russia before he’d learn that Ramsdell had been a CIA agent. The truth only came out after Ramsdell published a book based on his life, "A Train to Potevka."
The excitement of being abroad and his near-scuffle with the mob caused Karren to reflect on his experience in the years that followed. He always wondered what would have happened had he stayed behind, had he not left despite the threats — and he allowed his imagination to run wild with the thought.
He followed Ramsdell’s example and began planning his own book in 2011. His fiction novel, "The Deceit of Riches," hit shelves six years later. Ramsdell penned the book's forward.
"The premise of the book is, what (would have) happened had I stayed six weeks longer?" Karren said. "You have so many of the different elements that were going on in the city and in the country … weaved together with the crazy experiences I had."
In "The Deceit of Riches," protagonist Peter Turner’s story begins very much like Karren’s — an American student in Russia meets another American in Nizhny Novgorod. Soon after, he accidentally stumbles into a treacherous plot that puts him head to head against Russian mobsters and even government corruption. But unlike Karren, Turner doesn’t leave before things take a turn for the worse.
Karren admitted he sensationalized elements in the book for the sake of good storytelling. But he also said that he rooted most of the events that take place in the story in reality, sprouting from true Russian history and his real experiences abroad.
"As I didn’t stay, I don’t think it would have been an exciting story," he said. "So I had to build some fiction into it to carry the themes."1 comment on this story
While the book might feature alluring mysteries, shady characters and a high-stakes plot, Karren hopes those who read "The Deceit of Riches" will learn to better understand Russia, its culture and its people. He believes current events have led to a higher interest in the region and that some of the country’s political corruption has led to harmful stereotypes of everyday Russians. But Karren, who lives in Holland where he works in international trade, believes it’s more important than ever to understand our neighbors on the other side of the world.
"Your average Russian does not want to kill you or do you any harm," Karren said. "Russians are now being painted that way again, and that does not help world peace."
If you go …
What: Val M. Karren book signing
When: Saturday, Sept. 29, 2 p.m.
Where: The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East
Note: The event is free and open to the public.