The first time I met her, she called herself Helena Saratova.
She claimed to be a Russian aristocrat, and she managed a high-class brothel in Bubbling Well Road, in Shanghai.
She was in her forties, and had blue hair.
It was the summer of 1936, and Felice Sabatini was in a bind.
I was one-third into my first novel, The Ministry of Thunder, and I had painted myself – and my main character, Sabatini – in a corner. We both needed help, and fast, so I summoned a throwaway character, someone that could come in, help the hero, and be gone.
I got much more than I bargained for – Helena not only solved the problems in my plot, but she stayed on scene for most of the second third of the novel, stealing the scene from the leading lady and showing such an easy chemistry with the protagonist that when all was said and done, the novel finished, packaged, sold and read, most of the readers were quite happy,m yes, and wanted more of it.
More action, more adventure, more flying white apes and Chinese demons.
More of Felice Sabatini.
And oh, please, more Helena Saratova.
So I wrote the short Cynical Little Angels, a prequel of sorts to The Ministry of Thunder, that told the story of the first meeting between Felice and Helena.
The readers were once again happy.
Helena Saratova had become my first breakout character.
As the planned sequels of Ministry stalled, it also became quite obvious that Helena would have a big part in them.
It also became obvious that her relationship with Felice Sabatini would evolve, and I did not want it to evolve in any predictable direction – much as I love writing couples (it comes from being exposed at an early age to John Steed and Emma Peel), I tend to prefer to tell about accomplices and partners in crime more than plain boring lovers; there needs to be complicity, fun, and chemistry, not just throbbing hearts (it comes from being exposed at an early age to John Steed and Emma Peel).
And to plan the evolution of my characters, I needed to learn more about them, and while I knew almost everything of Felice Sabatini, I knew very little of Helena.
- I knew that her name was not really Helena Saratova.
- She was not an aristocrat.
- She was a Polish pretending to be a Russian.
- I knew her father had been a stage magician, and that she “had a past”.
She was very loosely based on a number of historical characters.
- Elsie de Wolfe, an American actress and celebrity that had dyed her hair blue in the 30s, and is mentioned in a Cole Porter song.
- A mysterious Polish woman that pretended to be a Russian Duchess, and that in the ’30s in Shanghai claimed to be able to cure any disease by immersing the patient’s feet in Perrier water and then handing them two electrodes.
- A White Russian madam that managed a very exclusive cathouse on Bubbling Well Road, also in Shanghai in the ’30s.
- American journalist, writer and adventuress Emilie Hahn (that together with her gibbon Mister Millis makes an appearance in The Ministry of Thunder)
The mix was further seasoned with
- Aunt Augusta, as portrayed by Maggie Smith in the movie adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel Travels with my Aunt
- the Comtesse Valentine, a narcoleptic nymphomaniac portrayed by Myrna Loy in the 1932 movie Love me Tonight
- the song “Don’t tell mama”, from the musical “Cabaret”, specifically in the Ute Lemper version.
And this might look like a lot of work for a character that has to be on scene for about ten pages, but it really is not.
And after all, she remained on scene for over 100 pages. And a further book. Or three.
But now I needed to learn more.
Then, in the summer of 2019 three things happened.
- First, I started actually properly truly writing The Ministry of Lightning.
- Second, I chanced upon a painting by Russian artist Waldemar Kazak, that was a perfect portrait of a young Helena Saratova, caught in her youthful debauchery.
- Third, I stumbled on a minor event in the Great War: an Italian accountant pretending to be a captain in the Italian army, in Russia, in 1918; he turned 300 Italian prisoners of war into a completely bogus “Battaglione Savoia”, requisitioned an armored train and fought his way along the Transiberian to Krasnoyarsk, where he took control of the city and set up a hospital WITH TWO YOUNG RUSSIAN NURSES, ONE OF WHICH CLAIMED TO BE A MEMBER OF THE ARISTOCRACY.
And I thought SO THAT’S WHERE YOU’VE BEEN!
Because a woman in her twenties in civil war-torn Russia in 1919 could well be a woman in her forties in 1936 Shanghai. And after all, the Italians from Krasnoyark moved to Tientsin – and that’s where Felice first met Helena in Cynical Little Angels.
And so I got this idea that it would be neat (and fun!) to write a few stories of Helena in her youth, when she was an adventuress and “a sort of female Harry Flashman”, maybe with a dash of Irene Adler.
Back when she was called Pandora.
The name comes from an Al Stewart song, that seems to describe the facets of the young character I was starting to see and develop. The connection was instantaneous, and the moment I knew her real name was Pandora, it became obvious that her stage magician father was none else than the Mysterious Marchinkus, whose circus/carnival troupe was caught on the wrong side of the Russian border when the February Revolution started.
So here you have her, Pandora Marchinkowska, born to a Polish father and a French mother in 1899. Or maybe 1896 (we’re not sure about that)
With her black cat, Lucifer.