This is the latest Arkady Renko book by Martin Cruz Smith and it's good in the same way that his other books are good. Renko has a good heart that leads him into bad situations and not-necessarily-very-good-relationships. He still observes things that others do not and so ends up solving mysteries that others don't even realize are mysteries. And Smith still doesn't spoon feed you the conclusions that Renko is reaching, so that sometimes you are surprised by what he says and does (and the results) and sometimes you are not.
In this book, an investigative reporter, Tatiana Petrovna, falls to her death at the same time that a mob boss is shot and buried. Renko is the only person who thinks there might be a connection and of course, he's right. Everything leads to Kaliningrad, the main city in a little outpost of Russia between Poland and Lithuania that I didn't even know existed despite having read all the Wallender books and, I thought, really learning the geography of the area. Kaliningrad is apparently the location of secret meetings that absolutely must remain secret, but which require the services of a translator. The translator also goes missing along with his book in which he "describes" the meeting in his own idiosyncratic notes and symbols. This book travels around and once found, requires a great deal of work to interpret. Naturally, Arkady solves the mystery of the book, the whereabouts of many of the characters, and the significance of the meeting. It's fun to tag along on his journey, both physical and mental. I kept up with him mentally on some things, but did not on others, but that was part of the fun. For example,
Also, it was apparently the murder of Anna Politkovskaya that gave Smith the idea for this book.
Set in Japan, 1941–two days before and the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor–it tells the story of Harry Niles, an American born, Japanese raised con-man/business owner, as he tries to ward off a possible war between the two countries that he's torn between.
On the one hand, this is a briskly-paced thriller, always keeping the reader interested, but never entirely sure of what's really going on. On the other, it's a wonderfully atmospheric and evocative picture of 1941 Japan, as well as flashbacks to Harry's youth in the 1920's. Smith, a veteran mystery writer of considerable literary skill, does this credible thriller justice as he spins his intriguing web of deception, revenge, betrayal, and love. It also has one of the most creative, non-clichéd uses of a gun as a plot device that I have ever read.
The strengths are the well-researched setting, the detailed narrative, the dialogue, and, for the most part, the intriguing plot. I think the weaknesses were the flashbacks, which sometimes interrupted the flow, and a few coincidences with the plot. However, I don't recommend this to a first time Martin Cruz Smith reader as the climax is a little too vintage Smith, and may put some new readers off of a wonderful author. I recommend reading Gorky Park or Rose first.
I finished this novel a few weeks ago, but was sufficiently unimpressed. This one was my first disappointment with Martin Cruz Smith. It is definitely my least favorite Renko novel and ranks down there with Stallion Gate in his oeuvre. It seems that Smith has run out of ideas for Renko--but still wants to talk about Russia--so he has resorted to adding recurring characters and relying on clichés. There is also one big surprise in the middle that comes out of nowhere--and it is indeed a doozy--but it actually made me want to stop reading the book. That's something rare for me as Smith is my favorite mystery writer.
The ending of the novel somewhat redeems itself as Smith decided that it was time to put some intrigue in it somewhere, but it was too little, far, far too late. Do not read this as your first Martin Cruz Smith novel. He is much, much better than this.
However, the reason I finally got around to posting about this novel was because of this article about Stalin. If Smith lost the plot in this novel, he at least provided us with a continuing look at Russia as it changes. He is a very good Russia watcher.
This book was published in 1981 and is set in 1977 at a time when the cold war was at its height and little was known about the internal policing of the Soviet Union. What a great place, then to set a detective novel.
The first third of the book appears to be a conventional detective novel involving the investigation into the murder of three bodies found in Gorky Park. Arkady Renko, a chief investigator with the Moscow militia is assigned to the case and his investigations lead him to discover the murderer.
Upon this discovery and Renko's confrontation with the murder, the novel could have ended and it could be considered to be one of the finest crime novels written. However, Martin Cruz Smith takes things further.
After a short interlude of some 26 pages; the location shifts to New York and an attempt to recover the good stolen by the murder, and the reason for the murders. The twists introduced at this late stage and the exploration of motives is brilliant and lists this book from merely great to brilliant.
From the back cover:
Fishing in the Bering Sea, a trawler's nets bring up flatsish, pollock, crabs and a blonde girl in a white blouse and blue jeans. Her name is Zina, and she is a crewmember of the Soviet factory ship Polar Star which processes the American trawlers' cathces.
Detailed to the ship's "slimeline" where the catch is gutted before freezing, is second-class seaman Arkady Renko, formerly Senior Investigator in the Moscow Prosecutor's Office, now a nobody. But Renko is appointed by the Polar Star's captain to investigate the death.
This is the second story to feature Arkady Renko and is as good as Gorky Park. During the investigation we learn what happened to Renko after Gorky Park and how he ended up as the lowliest crew member on a fishing boat.
As the investigation unfolds we discover clues at the same rate as Renko and little is given away. Although initally reluctant to get involved, Renko becomes more drawn into the investigation. He is the same dogged character as before pursuing his on line of enquiry when others would prefer to write the death off as a suicide.
In one scene when a report is produced by the third officer that suggests an accidental death and recommends that the investigation to be postponed until the ship returns to port.
Marchuk motioned Arkady closer. "Renko, do you have anything to add?"
Arkady thought for a moment and said, "No."
"Then do you want to sign it?"
"Let's see." Marchuk turned to Arkady. "You disagree with the conclusion that we leave the loose ends for the boys in Vladivostock?"
"Then with what?"
"Only . . . " Arkady searched for precision, "the facts."