Author Tags: Fiction, Film
Stephen Miller is a veteran Vancouver stage and film actor. Among his hundreds of appearances, he played Special Agent Andy McClaren in the Millennium television program and detective Zak McNab on DaVinci's Inquest. Miller has said he takes his laptop to work and writes about one hour per day on Hollywood North movie sets. He was born (1947) and raised in Durham, N.C. and graduated from Virginia Military Institute before coming to Canada in 1968 to attend UBC. He was one of the founders of Tamahnous Theatre.
Miller's short novel Wastefall (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1990) won the 11th annual 3-Day Novel Contest in 1989 and was originally conceived as a screenplay. It's described as a surreal ecological fable in which a destitute man finds fulfillment among the debris of a landfill site. This initial publication is rarely mentioned in the promotional materials furnished by larger publishers of his subsequent books.
In Miller's crime novel The Woman in the Yard (M&S/Picador 1999), a sheriff returns from duty in Korea, eager to build a career in North Carolina law enforcement. When a black prostitute washes up out of Cape Fear, his challenge is to solve the murder amidst his colleagues willful disinterest. Sheriff Q.P. Waldeau proceeds to pursue a murderer of black and white women ‘at the edge of the Old South and the New’. The American Picador catalogue touts the work as a first novel.
Miller's international thriller Field of Mars (Penguin, 2006) takes place in Russia in 1913 and follows Ryzhkov, a St. Petersburg secret policeman, who uncovers a plot to overthrow the tsar and install a puppet ruler, after Ryzhkov's apathy is disspelled by the murder of a child prostitute. In 2008, Field of Mars was re-released in paperback to coincide with publication of its follow-up, The Last Train to Kazan (Penguin $24), in which the cynical and disaffected Ryzhkov investigates the disappearance of the Tsar and his family. Who killed them? And how? And do any of them remain alive? [See review below]
Having had the foresight to record television coverage of the 9/11 tragedy as it was occurring, North Carolina-born Stephen Miller has long-gestated a riveting novel that takes the reader inside the heart and mind of a female Islamic terrorist who has been trained to infiltrate the United States for a multi-pronged germ warfare attack. The result is The Messenger (Delacorte $31), an unforgettable account that disturbingly enables the reader to feel empathy for a brainwashed terrorist-on-the-run during her 16-day ordeal, pursued by the discredited Dr. Sam Watterman, whose investigations into anthrax were dismissed by the U.S. government. While the adventures of the deadly "messenger" Daria are clearly the makings for a riveting cinema thriller, Miller has also done extensive research to reveal how 'bioterror' remains both relatively cheap and technologically feasible. The Messenger is a fascinating shocker, thoroughly engaging, smart and eerily plausible.
[BCBW 2013] "Fiction" "Film" "3-Day"
Stephen Miller as an actor
You can visit Stephen Miller's website at stephenmillerwriter.org for more information. Here is his 2008 summary of his career in theatre and television from that site:
Almost immediately after I came to Vancouver in 1968 I started hanging out at the Theatre Department of the University of British Columbia. As many have noted, exposure to theatre can be utterly infectious. Because I wasn’t enrolled in any theatre courses, I simply volunteered for everything and ended up basically living at the theatre. Eventually I was hired by the Department as a stage carpenter and technician!
After my discharge from active duty in the winter of 1971, I returned to Vancouver and at term's end joined with a group of UBC students in the founding of Tamahnous Theatre Workshop.
Tamahnous was an experimental company in true underground style. As much as possible we created new work, or performed new plays, or occasionally adapted a classic. The wonderful thing about the company was that we could miscast ourselves, and by so doing we made opportunities for ourselves that we would never have gotten in the “straight” theatre. We were organized as a collective and pretty much lived our lives as company members. Tamahnous was a very influential company and deserves its own web history. I was with the company for 11 years and it was often hard work, but we did some fantastic work and those were wonderful times for which I will always be thankful.
Film and television production began to take off in Vancouver in 1978 and I began auditioning and writing screenplays on spec. I found the screenplay experience thrilling but terribly frustrating. It usually boiled down to a string of lunches, often wonderful lunches, and an evolutionary re-configuration of the script so that the ingredients shifted about like a Rubik’s cube. The amount of money needed to float a film is ridiculous, but coming from the underground I always gravitated to the no-budget work of my friends. By doing everything that came along, when the Vancouver boom hit I was already one of the more experienced film actors in town. Suzie Payne and I had married and were pregnant and I limited appearances on stage to one per year.
Unforgettable film and television moments include swimming with Hume Cronyn, improvising for a day with Robert DeNiro, carrying Bette Davis down a flight of concrete stairs, stunt driving with Burt Reynolds, delivering Laura Dern's child, and performing in radio dramas at CBC. I really enjoyed my appearances in The Gray Fox, The Accused, and Reefer Madness, the musical. Another highlight was appearing in the pilot episode of the X-Files and two more over the life of the show, after which I was rewarded with a regular role as FBI Assistant Director Andy McClaren in Chris Carter's Millennium. I am proud to have been a three-time Gemini nominee and a winner of a Leo Award for my portrayal of Vancouver Police traffic investigator, Zack McNab, on the critically acclaimed DaVinci's Inquest and DaVinci’s City Hall television series.
I continue to appear on stage at various venues in Vancouver, most recently in the Playhouse Theatre Company's production of Moonlight and Magnolias in the role of Victor Fleming.
The Last Train to Kazan
Actor Stephen Miller, known for playing Zack McNab on Da Vinci’s Inquest, has made the most of his character roles for 37 years. Now he’s hitting the bigtime with his new Russian historical thriller The Last Train to Kazan. Published internationally by Penguin Books, it’s a double-agent’s view of how and why the czar and his family were murdered in 1918.
It is a Canadian tradition to not allow anyone to outgrow their britches. The forces of Envy and Jealousy will rise up to smite you if you try to succeed in more than one vocation. Stephen Miller, for example, has written four novels—starting with his locally published Three-Day Novel Contest winner Wastefall (Arsenal Pulp, 1990)—but he is seldom recognized as a writer in British Columbia, where he has lived since 1971.
The North Carolina-born actor has recently released two novels about the Russian Revolution—but he has also carried Bette Davis down a flight of concrete stairs, improvised all day with Robert DeNiro and delivered Laura Dern’s baby while accumulating almost 200 Hollywood and television credits.
Miller’s Field of Mars (Penguin, 2006) introduced a disaffected Petrograd detective Peyotr Ryzhkov who, when stirred out of his apathy by the murder of a child prostitute, unravels a plot to overthrow the czar and install a puppet ruler in 1913.
Now Miller has returned with The Last Train to Kazan (Penguin $24), a longer and even more intense novel that reintroduces Ryzhkov in a more ghastly, bewildering and bloodier adventure.
Although set during the Russian Revolution, nobody is going to confuse Stephen Miller’s The Last Train to Kazan with Dr. Zhivago.
“There were no dogs in the city,” he writes, describing Moscow in 1918, “they had all been eaten.”
On the opening pages, former czarist secret policeman Ryzhkov accepts an offer from the Bolsheviks that he can’t refuse: He can either face a firing squad or travel to Siberia to learn if the Russian royal family has been murdered (yet).
At the outset our man Ryzhkov is a survival artist, little else. He is seriously non-aligned, a man for whom, “Life was just a vortex of loss.” He doesn’t give a damn about the Romanovs. Or Comrade Lenin.
As hostages of the Bolsheviks, the Romanovs were first sent beyond the Urals to Tobolsk, supposedly for their own safety, but mostly because the Red Army didn’t know what to do with them. Then they were moved by steamer in April of 1918 to Yekaterinburg, an industrial city named by Peter the Great for his bride Catherine and designed to serve as the gateway to Siberia.
By the time Ryzhkov arrives, Yekaterinburg had degenerated into a frontier outpost where two potatoes from last year could serve as a bribe. In “a city in chaos, stupefied, not knowing to whom it should pay allegiance,” our sullen, Clive Owen-ish anti-hero is told the czar and his entourage have been assassinated three nights before—but, if so, where’s the proof?
When the White Russians take control of Yekaterinburg from the Red Russians (thanks to an invasion by Czechs), Ryzhkov ditches his identity papers and ingratiates himself to a dashing Italian named Giustiniani, joining the counter-investigation. Regardless of nationality or political leanings, everybody wants to learn the czar’s fate because most European royal families are related.
If the Mensheviks, or White Russians, can rightfully claim the Bolsheviks have grotesquely butchered the Romanovs, powerful nations such as Germany and England could be hard pressed to support the Bolsheviks or their law firm of Lenin, Marx & Trotsky.
Hence the outcome of the Russian Civil War might not hinge on whether the czar and his eight family members have been assassinated, or who has offed them; but rather the destiny of Russia could depend on who gets the news first, and how that news can be manipulated for propaganda.
When a human finger is found at an abandoned mine site, along with jewelry and clothing belonging to the royal family, the scene resembles something we might see on Da Vinci’s Inquest, but for the most part The Last Train to Kazan is chillingly original, with insights more akin to Hamlet than Dashiell Hammett.
“Ryzhkov had become a scientist of mud, a sort of Red Indian scout when it came to mud. He had come out of the war having lost his revulsion for mud and dirt, and maybe it was a welcome kind of knowledge.”
Having reluctantly attended a drunken orgy with the Italian and later located the missing Yakov Yurovsky—a non-fictional character who was given the unenviable task of safeguarding the czar and/or killing him—Ryzhkov’s sleuthing and double-agency is just the set-up for the web of intrigue and mayhem to come.
About one-third of the way through The Last Train to Kazan, Miller pulls a big plot twist, followed by an astonishing counter-reveal, and the detective procedural aspect of the story evaporates.
Miller ratchets up the tension by revealing that nearly everyone has the potential for criminality or, at the very least, dishonesty. Those who don’t are the freaks. Miller investigates the emotions and schemes of literally dozens of characters, rather than focussing on Ryzhkov alone. In this way we get a cross-section of social desperation that has a great deal more to do with Dostoevsky than a conventional whodunit or thriller.
Miller’s scatter-gun approach to narration can be off-putting, and some of the early dialogue is chronically obtuse, but the reader with stamina will be rewarded with subsequent writing that is undeniably brilliant. “Rumours were the floor upon which they walked,” he writes.
Whether he’s describing a vicious stabbing on a train car belonging to a lecherous grand dame named Sophie Buxhoeveden or decoding the amorous Machiavellianism of her playboy lover Captain Tommaso di Giustiniani—both are trying to out-manipulate each other—Miller is unfailingly adept at unmasking the darkest recesses of human behaviour.
The intricacies of the final two-thirds of the story cannot be revealed except to say that Ryzhkov’s brief conversation with a dreamy, stupid, beautiful girl—a genuine Russian princess, the Grand Duchess Marie—prompts him to betray his better judgment and proceed on a path that is deliberately foolhardy and remotely noble.
One hint: A forensic note in the afterword mentions that the remains of two of the nine bodies of the Russian Imperial family have yet to be accounted for—the prince Alexei and one of his sisters, “almost certainly Marie.”
Like most of Dostoevsky’s novels, The Last Train to Kazan could have been shorter, but it’s the unrelenting intensity, the desire to dig beneath surfaces, that resonates long after the storyline is forgotten.
The Last Train to Kazan is memorable like the movie Mephisto starring Klaus Maria Brandauer, a political drama in which a stage actor keeps transforming to ensure his survival within Nazi Germany.
After 400-plus pages, it is hard not to wonder if Miller’s three decades of surviving as an actor, necessarily adopting whichever roles are assigned to him, has fuelled his ability to create a unique detective in Ryzhkov. 978-0-14305585-3
[BCBW 2008] "Historical" "Mystery" "Fiction"