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.
This is the fifth book of Martin Cruz Smith's featuring the cynical, Russian police investigator Arkady Renko. It centers around the apparent suicide of Russia's wealthiest oligarch, who fell 10 stories from his apartment window with a salt shaker in his hand. The investigation takes a twist when a pile of salt is found in his bedroom closet.
First off, I don't often read mysteries, as I find them to be trite and over the top, with the feeling of being phoned-in rather than thoughtfully-written. Martin Cruz Smith is one of the rare exceptions that I have found (he isn't one of those book-a-year kind of writers). His Arkady Renko stories, and this one is no exception, manage to rise above the simple whodunit, realizing that 'who' isn't as important as the lessons that can be learned from 'why'.
His strengths are: extremely intricate plots, vivid imagery, and crisp, if somewhat abstract, dialogue. There is never a wasted word, and I have seldom read an author who could say so much in so few words. Every scene has a purpose, and closes with a comment or summation that lets the reader know more was going on than just a conversation. His observations about Russia, crime, and people are all delivered with a note of conviction and finesse.
My only real complaint about this book would be Arkady's salvation at the climax. I think Mr. Smith is an accomplished enough writer now, and should be able to present a more satisfying climax. However, one small detail can't ruin the brilliant set-up and commentary of the previous several hundred pages.
Much of this story takes place in the 30km Evacuation Zone surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear facility in Ukraine. Given that April 26, 2006 will be the 20th anniversary of the accident, it is a timely book to read; one that combines actual history with scientific and environmental discussion... and suspense.
I would heartily recommend this book - as well as his landmark mystery novel, Gorky Park - to anyone who likes well-written thrillers.
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."
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.
Martin Cruz Smith is another author I actively look for and jump to buy as soon as one of his books comes out. This is the 7th book in his Arkady Renko series, which I think as a group are his strongest books (although his best single book, I think, is Rose).
This book is short and its unrelated-but-related story lines got resolved pretty quickly, a little more quickly than I would have preferred, but I went with it because I liked the resolution. In fact, I found the last paragraph rather lyrical and I could just see it as it happened. Smith's descriptions of Russian life in general and Moscow life in particular are disturbing. The area around Three Stations is, not surprisingly, full of people who have just arrived in Moscow, often for rather desperate reasons, as well as the predators licking their lips at their arrival. For many of the characters, especially young women and all children, its a desperately unsafe place.
One of these people is a young woman who is found dead, presumed to be a prostitute who has overdosed. Another is a young prostitute who has fled with her 3 week old daughter to Moscow, only to have her daughter kidnapped by scam artists who want to sell it. Arkady doesn't think the dead girl is a prostitute and he doesn't think she died of an overdose. The story develops from there and eventually weaves in the search for the kidnapped baby.
Arkady Renko is a good man who feels sorry for the people who are trapped in these terrible sad lives and does what he can to investigate crime even against the will of his corrupt, but successful, boss. And it seems that he does these things at great personal cost. His personal connections are very tenuous and often short-lived, in part because of his job. This noble quality has always been a feature of the Renko books and is one I find appealing. And it certainly appears here, where no one except Renko is very interested in what happens to the people who live in the area.
The other Renko quality that I find appealing is his ability to look at what everyone else dismisses as meaningless and realize that it is telling a story that he needs to hear and investigate. As I remember, that happened in the first Renko book where he spots some small spots of blood in the snow that many would have ignored (it's possible I'm not remembering it correctly, but I think that's the case). Here, a murder is quite convincingly dressed up as an overdose, but Renko sees small inconsistencies that no one else notices or considers significant, but which turn out to be important.
I appreciate Martin Cruz Smith's style in these books. In this book, like the others, he doesn't feed you everything you need to understand what is happening, so that you have to work to figure it out. Sometimes, I had to go back and re-read an earlier section to make sense of what I was reading. I think that must be what it is like to participate in an investigation and I appreciate that Smith's books require me to do the work.
I liked this book and would recommend it if you have read the others in the Arkady Renko series. The books stand alone, so you don't have to read them as a series, but I think that if you can, you should start at the beginning, with Gorky Park and read them in order. Since this is the 7th book in the series, it should be out in paperback by the time you get to it.