Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith (1989)

‘Zina said words freed you or fucked you or turned you inside out. Every word, every single one, was a weapon or a chain or a pair of wings.’ (p.275)

Polar Star is a brilliantly interesting, richly diverse and engaging thriller. It is 437 pages long in my 1990 Fontana paperback edition and divided into three sections: Water, Earth, Ice.

Water (217 pages)

At the end of Gorky Park – the bestselling novel which introduced the character of coldly effective Moscow detective Arkady Renko – our hero had uncovered a smuggling ring led by a rich American who was paying off corrupt Soviet officials. The bloody shootout at the climax of the novel is set in New York but, although given the chance to run away with the woman he’s fallen in love with, Irina, Arkady refuses and returns to the Soviet Union.

Now, eight years later, Cruz Smith published this sequel, and it seems a similar period has elapsed in Arkady’s life. Gorky Park was set in spring and summer 1977, Polar Star refers to the ‘New Thinking’ inaugurated by Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev from 1985…

Polar Star is the name of an enormous fishing factory ship, which has been working the Bering Sea for four long cold months, its 250 crew processing the vast hauls of fish brought to it by four supporting catcher boats. These latter are American and the two nations are collaborating via a jointly-owned company which shares the profits.

The novel opens powerfully with a vast net full of fish being hauled up the ramp onto the Star and among the tens of thousands of pollock, cod, crabs and so on which pour onto the boat, comes the corpse of a young woman, Zina Patiashvili, a popular member of the catering staff. Grizzled old sea captain Viktor Marchuk sends for – who else – Arkady Renko, a man with a shady background who has been expelled from jobs all across continental Russia till he arrived in the far east of the country at Vladivostock, and who has been working on the ship’s disgusting, below deck ‘slime line’.

Flashbacks

In flashbacks we learn that, immediately upon returning to the USSR after the events of Gorky Park, Arkady was incarcerated in a psychiatric institute where he was interrogated with the use of drugs by the authorities who, more than anything else, wanted to know the whereabouts of his girlfriend/lover Irina. As he doesn’t know, he couldn’t tell them. In a strangely moving scene, he is visited one day by the KGB major, Pribluda, who started Gorky Park as Arkady’s bitter enemy, but ended as his grudging ally. Paying back a debt incurred in the earlier novel, Pribluda smuggles Arkady out of the prison and onto an eastbound train, complete with new clothes and fake papers. ‘Stay out east and no one will bother you.’ (pp.111-124)

Other flashbacks fill in Arkady’s years on the run from one low-paid job to another, always staying one step ahead of KGB agents, travelling across Siberia until he arrives in Vladivostok. Here, desperate to escape land, he signs on to the Polar Star for a long, rusty, salty year, working on the ‘slime line’, gutting and cleaning fish for the freezer, eight hours a day, day in, day out.

Arkady’s investigations

Now Arkady finds himself unwillingly tangling with the pushy third mate in charge of the investigation, Slava Bukovsky, and with the shipboard commissar or Party enforcer, Volovoi. The ship doctor Vunai and officials gather together to declare Zina’s death an accident, but Arkady embarrasses them by almost certainly proving it murder. Over the next 200 pages we follow Arkady – liberated from the prison of the below-decks production line – and given carte blanche to explore the intricate world of ship-board life, its complex network of friendships and alliances.

The Russians

  • Zina Patiashvili – Arkady finds out a lot more about her. Far from being the non-entity she appears at the start, Arkady finds a stash of tapes she’d made recording her conversations and encounters: she had sex with a ‘lieutenant’ in what might be a secret intelligence room somewhere on the ship; there are tapes of a man singing traditional Russian slave songs. Searching her cabin thoroughly he finds uncut precious stones sewn into the lining of one of her jackets. There was more to her than meets the eye.
  • Captain Marchuk – gruffly honest, he turns out to have had a one-night stand with Zina back in Vladivostok. He describes picking her up in a bar and going back to her apartment which looked like it was shared with an absent man – and this opinion is repeated by the radio officer, the one Arkady later identifies as the ‘lieutenant’ in Zina’s recordings of their encounters. Both thought Zina was living with someone back in Vladivostok – so who was he? What was she doing with the hidden jewels? Who else had she had sex with?
  • Volovoi – in the early phases Arkady is opposed by the political commissar, Volovoi, who wants Zina’s death to be a simple accident, for his own and the ship’s good. Volovoi is in charge of two snoops or sneaks, Skiba and Slezko, who follow Arkady.
  • To his dismay, the third mate, Slava Bukovsky, is put in charge of the investigation, something he is completely unprepared for.
  • We get to know Arkady’s room-mates – Gury fermenting illegal alcohol from every sort of rotting vegetable matter, Kolya Mer the would-be scientist and botanis, and Obidin the devout Russian Orthodox. It is in the details of their characters and lives and hopes, trammeled by Soviet society, that Cruz Smith scores imaginatively time after time.
  • Natasha Chaikovskaya is the very large young Russian woman – the classic Russian shot putter – and a fiercely orthodox Communist Party activist, who works on the slime line alongside Arkady and starts the novel as his enemy, but gets to see his dedication to the job at first hand and becomes his assistant for the middle sections.
  • Karp Korobetz – the chief trawlmaster turns out to be Arkady’s bitterest enemy, a man Arkady helped convict 15 years earlier, consigning him to a prison camp in Siberia, where he got himself covered in the tattoos of the urka the professional criminal and convict.
  • Hess – mysterious Fleet engineer who appears out of nowhere to be at the captain’s side for the meetings where the captain tasks Arkady with finding the truth about Zina. Arkady suspects, then confirms that Hess is from Naval Intelligence. He has a small cabin in the prow of the ship which is equipped with sonar machines attached to a long cable lined with detectors which the Polar Star trails behind it. Aha. The ship has a secret espionage function. Is that what Zina had stumbled across? Is that why she was murdered?

The Americans

  • Captain George Morgan of the American catch-ship Eagle.
  • Susan Hightower, one of the Americans on permanent secondment to the Star, she was on the deck of the Polar Star and saw Zina the night she went missing. What did they say to each other? Susan starts off very antagonistic to Arkady, this jumped-up fish-worker turned investigator, but ends up falling for him, in fact they end up sleeping together – though right to the end keeping their emotional distance.
  • Ridley and Coletti, cocky unpleasant workers on Morgan’ ship.
  • Mikhail ‘Mike’, a Russian-born Aleutian Islander, also working on the Eagle.

Arkady’s snooping around the ship awakens dark forces. After he has emerged from the mysteriously empty forward hold – which he went to explore wondering whether it contained the secret chamber referred to on one of Zina’s tapes – he is mugged, has petrol-soaked rags thrust in his mouth and a sack pulled over his body. A belt is tied round his middle and he is carried by several men at speed along gangways till he is thrown into the fish cold storage room.

Cruz Smith gives an absolutely brilliant description of an intelligent man quickly starting to freeze to death. Arkady tries a number of futile remedies – within a minute he is shaking too hard to strike the matches in his pocket – and is only saved because the sound of his demented laughing penetrates the padded door as someone happens to be passing. It is Natasha, and it is from her rescue and the subsequent effort she puts in nursing him back to health that their friendship grows, and then he recruits her to help him.

Scared now, of further attack, extra pressure is added when word gets around that Arkady’s investigations may lead to the cancelling of the long-promised shore leave on Dutch Harbour, in the Aleutian Islands, the main reason most of the crew sail on the wretched ship. His shipmates turn surly, there are not so subtle threats against him. The rumours were deliberately spread by commissar Volovoi who wants to return to port with 100% good conduct record for the journey.

At the climax of the section Slava comes bounding into the captain’s cabin declaring he’s found a suicide note from Zina. Thus the crew can go ashore at Dutch Harbour, and a lot of the pressure seems to be released. But Arkady knows there was no suicide note where Slava claims to have found it.

Earth (56 pages)

Arkady watches the crew go ashore. Then, to his surprise, the mysterious German, Hess, in charge of the ship’s secret monitoring equipment, smuggles him ashore where he is free to roam the streets of the little town watching the crew go mad shopping and getting drunk in the town’s one hotel. Susan the American lures him away from the bar to her room where, surprisingly, she is ready to go to bed but Arkady, standing by the window, happens to see ‘Mike’ the Aleutian leaving the back of the hotel.

Arkady apologises to the now furious Susan and slips away to follow the Aleut, up the hillside towards a secret door in the hillside. He enters to find a secret workshop containing a beautiful half-built native kayak. This, native boat building, was mentioned on one of Zina’s tapes. Did she sleep with Mike, as well? Either way, Arkady discovers Mike – who only went through the door a minute or two before Arkady – is dead, a pair of workman’s scissors expertly stabbed through the back of his neck. Yuk.

Arkady is still bending over the body when the commissar Volovoi arrives, having followed him, accompanied by the massive bulk of Karp Korobetz carrying an axe. Volovoi predictably accuses Arkady of the murder. He casually orders Karp to hit Arkady, at his whim, as he tries to beat the truth out of him. But in a weird and intense scene Volovoi badly miscalculates Karp, goading him almost as much as our hero, until Karp turns on his master and – amazingly – plunges a knife right into his throat, forcing Volovoi to sit back on a bench where he gazes astonished at himself bleeding to death. Then Karp turns back to the business of killing Arkady. There is a long cinematic fight which ends with Arkady desperately throwing a paint pot which knocks over a lantern which starts a fire. As the fire takes and grows, Karp calmly closes the door to the workshop and locks Arkady inside.

Desperately, through the flames, Arkady builds a shaky tower of barrels allowing him to swing some netting up towards a hatch in the ceiling of the workshop, which he manages to force open to emerge gasping, beaten and singed onto the hillside.

Ice (54 pages)

In the final section the Polar Star steams north into the Arctic circle, breaking the ice for the American catch ships following behind it. We find out that after escaping from Mike’s fiery workshop, Arkady had thrown himself into the harbour of Dutch Harbour and got himself fished out, pretending to be drunk, the seawater erasing the smell of smoke and explaining his bruises.

He knows Karp is still after him but has no evidence and doesn’t understand why Karp harbours such animosity to him. How are Arkady’s investigations threatening him? How is Karp connected to Zina? The official line is that Mike and Volovoi got drunk together on their shore leave and accidentally set off a disastrous fire. Captain Marchuk and his sidekick Hess realise something else happened but – as usual – Arkady refuses to contradict the official version, keeping everything he knows to himself.

In this the final section a number of things happen:

  • Karp and his men again try to kill Arkady who escapes into the cabin of Susan Hightower. In a James Bondish way she, drunk, seduces him and reveals that she works for American intelligence. She was recruited by Captain Morgan four years earlier. Morgan is hoping to capture some of the cable lined with echo equipment which the Soviets are using to spy on US submarines.
  • Karp traps Arkady again, this time on the half frozen ramp sloping down into the sea up which the fishing nets from the catch ships are hailed. As he closes in, Karp confirms our man’s suspicions that he is running a drug smuggling operation. Small packs of American cocaine were included in the nets of fish routinely transferred from the American ship Eagle in exchange for larger packs of Russian marijuana.
  • Zina was Karp’s moll. She seduced all the men she needed to in order to get herself onto the ship and then to get the lie of the land. Thus she slept with Slava to get recommended to the crew, with the captain to get him under her thumb, with Volovoi to scare him, with the radio officer Nikolai to understand the range and power of the radios, she used sex as an exchange for information, but all the time remained loyal to Karp’s massive, Siberian love.

The Polar Star‘s spying cable gets caught in something and the ship slows and then comes to a standstill amid the ice. The Eagle a few kilometers south is quickly iced in. Arkady takes a chance, dresses warm and descends to the ice and sets off through the fog across the creaking treacherous ice to the American ship, becoming aware halfway that a figure is following him.

Because of the fog Arkady can sneak unobserved onto the ship and begins to search it when he is confronted – again – with the bulk of Karp. It is finally confirmed that Karp needs to kill Arkady to smother the evidence of his drug running and that he and Zina were lovers and that he saw the opportunity of setting up a drug smuggling operation with the Americans and brought Zina in to help him.

Playing furiously for time, Arkady explains he thinks Zina was killed here, on the American boat. Suspicious, Karp lets himself be talked into helping Arkady search the boat while the three crew are above deck trying to clear the ice. They have just found the storage locker where Arkady realises Zina must have been hidden after being killed, a set of bolts in the side explaining bruises on Zina’s corpse, and even a lock of her hair snagged in the door – when a pair of guns appear at their heads.

It is Ridley and Coletti, the Eagle’s crewmen, along with Morgan the captain. In an intense, knife-edge scene they admit to the drug smuggling and agree to kill Arkady. But the captain objects to this – ‘I’ve gone along with the drugs but there’s to be no killing’ – while Arkady simultaneously plays on Karp’s anger by goading Ridley to admit he slept with Zina and then – when she inconveniently appeared on the ship that fateful night – killed her – ‘Sure, she was in the way.’

Suddenly it all kicks off and in a few confused seconds the captain makes a move on Coletti who shoots and badly wounds him, Arkady fires the flare he’s been keeping in his pocket at Ridley, confusing him long enough for Karp to fling a three-tined grappling hook around his face, pulling him backwards screaming then binding it round his body, throwing the rope over an overhead cable and hauling Ridley’s wriggling body up into the air till he’s dead. Keeping Coletti covered, they help captain Morgan back to his feet, who promises to radio the Polar Star that two seamen are making their way back across the ice.

And here, on the polar ice, in the middle of nowhere, lost in the fog, Arkady and Karp have their final reckoning.

Thoughts

This Fontana paperback version of Polar Star is physically longer than Gorky Park (430 v. 350 pages) because it is printed in larger font with fewer words and less information on each page. Its physical thickness, the embossed cover and the lighter pages all made it feel more like a light airport novel than the dense, intense Gorky Park and the text itself reinforces the impression.

There are poetic flashes which gleam like fish scales on the water, but fewer than in the earlier book. Also, whereas every element of the Moscow book was foreign, from the street names to the food served in the horrible cafes, and although in this one the political commissars, and every aspect of life on the fish factory ship reek of Soviet privation, low expectations, shabby goods and drunkenness, and give it a powerfully claustrophobic, spied-on feel – nonetheless, the basic setting of being at sea is rather more international – or nationless – than the first novel. The descriptions of rusty bulkheads, salt-tanged air, mildew, breaking waves, remind me of the numerous other seaborne thrillers I’ve read by Alistair MacLean or Hammond Innes.

Also, we are a little more used to Arkady’s character and to the rhythm of these books: the most important one being his frustrating habit of discovering all sorts of things about the case but not telling  his superiors who go on thinking he’s wasting his time or, worse, is somehow responsible for crimes when we, the reader, have seen him get beaten, shot at and run over by the real baddies umpteen times. Something of the rhythm and feel of the book are, therefore, less intensely fresh than Gorky Park.

But in a way this helps to make it a slightly easier-to-read and therefore more entertaining and in some ways, more powerful book.

Poetry

There is less of the inspired, poetic use of language than in Gorky Park, but it is still here, like threads of gold buried in the weave of the novel, which occasionally gleam into the light.

He wore the enlightened expression of someone who enjoyed the wrong notes in an amateur piano recital. (p.91)

[Marchuk] poured more water for himself, studying the silvery string of liquid. (p.101)

Pribluda killed the engine, and for a moment there was no sound except the settling of snow, all those tons of flakes gently blanketing the city. (p.119)

Under his cap Pribluda had little eyes driven deep as nails. (p.119)

Water so cold seemed molten. Sea water started to crystallise at 29ºF, and because it carried so much brine it formed first not as a solid but as a transparent sheen, undulating on black swells, going grey as it congealed. (p.293)

These occasional flashes are the icing on the cake of a novel which handles its subject matter with supreme confidence. The book conveys astonishing and thoroughly researched insight into the Arctic fishing trade, with all its equipment, processes, the smell of the sea and the rotting fish, and the very rough camaraderie of a large crew at sea for prolonged periods. Much of the poetry is in the information, the depth of knowledge, which allows Smith to describe the ship, its work, the vividly drawn crew members and the freezing seas with such brio.

Soviet

And throughout you are aware of the series’ unique selling point – it is written by an American but set in Soviet Russia and conveys an unparalleled depth of insight into Soviet life and manners.

In the middle of the long table was a pot of cabbage soup that smelled like laundry and was consumed with raw garlic offered on separate plates, along with dark bread, goulash and tea that steamed enough to make the cafeteria as foggy as a sauna. (p.321)

I liked the notion that one form of Russian rebellion against the stifling communist bureaucracy was to create a whole underground of music based on criminal and prisoner songs, songs of crime, drunkenness and loss comparable to the popularity of the blues in the west.

I liked the idea the KGB is a name to inspire fear but also, among the officers, tired exasperation at the way they’re always sticking their nose in – Hess, the sound engineer who works for Naval Intelligence, doesn’t care about the murders on the ship, he is only concerned that the murders will give the KGB the opportunity to discover the expensive spying equipment installed on the Polar Star and steal it.

In a quietly persuasive scene, Captain Marchuk explains that the ship was delivered to Russia brand new from a Polish shipyard, with gleaming fixtures, and then the KGB descended and stripped it of everything valuable, taking all the linen and cutlery, the bulbs, all the fixtures and fittings, and replacing them with substandard Soviet work. In this scene, and numerous others, Smith paints a portrait of a society ruled by fear and run by an elite gluttonous with corruption. Several characters discuss the astonishing greed of Brezhnev’s daughter Galina, well known for her addiction to diamonds. (Her Wikipedia article confirms that she smuggled jewelry out of the USSR on such a scale as to threaten de Beers’ monopoly!)

Arkady’s nemesis, Karp, covered in tattoos except where his skin has been removed with acid by labour camp authorities, is a strangely attractive figure. He has survived the worst the Soviet system can throw at him and has become a kind of superman, effortlessly confident on the icy ramp of the ship where everyone else slips over, calmly confident in fight situations he knows he will always win – and full of stories, from the pimping and robbery he practiced in Moscow, which led eventually to the murder which saw him caught and condemned to life in Siberian labour camps, working in a reindeer slaughterhouse, hunting in the wild. His description of hearing a snow tiger prowling near one camp is hauntingly memorable.

But then so is the whole book. It is a brilliant work.


Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

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