Stanley and the Women by Kingsley Amis (1984)

The reference to Jewboys on page 43 (‘Soon afterwards I went out and picked up a taxi on its way back from dropping somebody at one of the Jewboys’ houses in Bishop’s Avenue’) was so wantonly offensive that it brought me up short and made me realise the character of Stanley Duke, who’s telling this first person narrative, is a character – is intended to be a fictional creation separate from his creator, the author known as Kingsley Amis, who couldn’t possibly be that casually anti-semitic, and that we mustn’t make the elementary mistake of confusing a created character – who can hold all kinds of views – with his creator, or the character’s opinions with the author’s.

The only problem with this is that the voice and attitude, the troubled relationship to other human beings, the grumpy resentment of the modern world, the relentless sexism, are all very much of a part with previous Amis books. It reads like Amis, it sounds like Amis, it thinks like Amis. Just giving the narrator a few unpleasant prejudices and a verbose style doesn’t really change the fact that it is an Amis text we’re reading, through and through. And this, late Amis, is mined with deliberate offense.

The plot

Stanley Duke, born and raised in Sarf London, is the permanently perplexed advertising manager of some car magazine in Fleet Street. He’s divorced from the ageing actress, Nowell who, looking back, he has no idea why he married. (She is now remarried to Bert Hutchinson, a TV ad director who is permanently pissed and sweary.) Stan now lives with posh, supportive Susan, who he nonetheless often finds puzzling, and who is connected to a ferociously posh mother, Lady D, and absurdly posh sister.

Stan and Sue are just tidying up after a dinner party when his 19-year-old son, Steve, turns up on the doorstep, apparently having suffered a mental collapse, behaving and speaking with bewildering irrationality.

It becomes clear that Steve’s had some kind of nervous breakdown and Stanley’s GP, Cliff Wainwright, after visiting, recommends him to a psychiatrist. The latter is on holiday so Steve’s care is taken over by pushy young female psychiatrist, Dr Collings, whose modish jargon and general femininity Stan takes strong exception to. He is backed up in this by the fogeyish Harley Street consultant, Dr Nash, who they visit for a second opinion and who strikes Stan as a good bloke when he not only offers sherry during the interview, but takes them on to a boozy lunch at a nice little place he knows. Educated woman = bad. Heavy drinking middle-aged white man = good.

The text is divided into four parts: Onset (94 pages), Progress (110 pages), Relapse (60 pages), Prognosis (44 pages).

If you were sympathetic to Amis maybe you would defend the book by saying it is a riotous satire on a certain type of middle-aged, drunk, sexist, anti-intellectual philistine. Except:

  • The views and style are too close to too many previous Amis narrators.
  • The first half at least – the part describing in detail Steve’s symptoms – isn’t funny at all, it’s genuinely distressing.
  • I laughed at the scene where Stan joins Bert at a party on a houseboat in the Thames where all the guests get puking drunk and the pissed couple drive to a little place Bert knows in central London where he reveals that he only pretends to be pissed and only swears at Stan whenever he turns up, in order to keep the ghastly Nowell onside, for he has come to hate and detest her. It is funny but embarrassing, this tale of two irresponsibly pissed fifty-something men who should know so much better.
  • Amis moves the goalposts to support Stan’s sexism: he makes the old, established, male psychiatrist totally support Stan’s dislike of the female psychiatrist; he makes Bert support Stan’s interpretation of Nowell’s horrible character. It isn’t a truly open exploration of being adrift in the modern world: Amis loads the dice in favour of his sexist narrator. Which just doesn’t seem that clever or inventive.

Misogyny

There’s no avoiding the fact that Amis has gone out of his way to make this novel as unpleasant to women as possible. All women. Early on he establishes that Stan’s ex-wife is an unbearable drama queen. Steve’s psychiatrist, Dr Collings, is portrayed as superficial, trendy and almost incompetent, herself often a rag of messed hair, smouldering fag and resentment. Throughout the novel Stan sprinkles sexist comments and remarks and Amis makes sure Stan’s attitude is bolstered by other male figures.

‘On our first meeting at your house, do you remember my asking you if you thought all women were mad?’
‘Very clearly,’ I said. ‘And I told you I thought a lot of them were. Well, what’s happened in the meantime hasn’t exactly forced me to change my mind.’ (p.307)

But it’s in the final section that there comes the one really big surprise, the one genuine plot twist in the novel. Steve is released back into Stan and Susan’s care but suffers a relapse. (This, Stan discovers, is because the awful Dr Collings is weaning him off the medication which had, in truth, been stabilising his condition.) They wake up one morning to find Steve has climbed high up a tree in the garden to avoid ‘them’ looking into his mind.

The twist is the effect this has on his previously solid, reliable second wife, posh Susan. When Stan rings the ex, Nowell, to come round and talk Steve down from the tree (based on the way she managed to calm him down on the first evening when he turned up in such a state), Susan refuses to be there, to see her, to hear her voice, but hides in the bedroom. She reproaches Stan for preferring his ex to her, when in Stan’s mind it’s a simple matter of what’s effective.

Then – arguably the key event of the novel – is that the next day, Stan gets a call at work to hurry home and finds his friend, Dr Wainwright, treating Susan for a bad cut on her forearm. She claims Steve attacked her with a kitchen knife then panicked, ran back to his bedroom while Susan called the doc. But Dr W tells Stan, in front of Susan, that when he went in, talked to, and then sedated Steve, the boy disclaimed any knowledge of the incident. For a moment Stan is completely perplexed.

And, after the doc has gone, Susan has a massive tantrum, all her pent-up anger and frustration with this intolerable situation coming out in a long tirade against Stanley, his selfishness, his boorish, lower-class habits, his drunkenness. Now – to her horror – she realises he doesn’t even believe her about the knife incident; for a moment he was more inclined to believe his disastrously mad son than his loyal wife. And so she packs her bags and storms off to her mother’s vowing never to return.

Stunned, Stan staggers through his day, but is lucky enough to have his old flame Lindsey to call on, they go for a meal and then back to her flat, to bed. However, the thrust of these scenes is that Lindsey knew Susan at university – and Susan is mad. Lindsey tells a number of anecdotes about how Susan couldn’t bear not to be the centre of attention, smashed places up, caused havoc, almost had to be restrained on numerous occasions. ‘She’s mad, Stan, mad.’ The moral of this plot device is: Even the sanest, most reliable woman you’ve known for ages – underneath, turns out to be completely bonkers!

Later, Stan talks to Dr Nash who, gives voice to a long, repellent rant about women, how they are incapable of understanding honesty, or decency, or admitting their mistakes.

‘They don’t have motives as you and I understand them. They have the means and the opportunity, that is enough.’ (p.306)

And, in the final pages, Stan goes round to dinner at Doc Wainwright’s who explains that the kind of cut Susan got is not the kind you’d get fending off an attacker – it is the kind of carefully undangerous cut on the fleshy part of the arm that someone would give themselves. Horribly, he confirms that Susan almost certainly self inflicted the wound, confirming Lindsey’s analysis that she is a hysterical attention-seeker – confirming the mounting thrust of the whole novel, that women are unbearably other, impenetrable irrational beings.

At which moment, with comic, or gruesome, timing, just as we’ve learned all this about poor Susan – the phone rings and it is Susan, abjectly apologising to Stan for her outburst, she’s been under a lot of strain with the Steve thing etc etc. Will he take her back…?

While she hurried on about having been so desperately frightened and upset and one thing and another I turned towards Cliff, who did the brief lift of the chin South London people use to mean Told you so or Here we go again or Wouldn’t you bleeding know it. (p.317)

As a male reader I found the style and attitude of this novel wearing and occasionally jarring. If I was a woman, I think I’d be happy to see it burnt.


The narrator’s alienation

Amis is marketed as a comic writer but I have found all his books eerie and unsettling because of the profound disconnect between the observing narrator and the characters. The narrator really struggles to know what other people are thinking or doing. He finds other people’s behaviour a constant puzzle.

Far from being funny, I routinely find it like being inside the mind of an autistic person – almost every sentence, every gesture, produced by other people is bewildering and mystifying. The narrator – and the reader – looks on in complete bafflement. Maybe many readers find the results funny but I find them deeply disturbing.

The narrator’s style

The narrator’s style in this book is characterised by vagueness and verbosity. Given half a chance he uses what you could call ‘dangling clauses’, tagging onto the end of sentences an additional phrase or two which never give greater precision or definition, but always do the opposite – emphasising that there are one or two or three interpretations of what someone else has done or said or might have if they, you know, had the chance, maybe – well, whatever. The narrator is so used to being disoriented by other people’s surprising behaviour, he doesn’t care much any more, sort of thing.

Too often this ‘whatever’ attitude is expanded to fill whole paragraphs of repetitive bumf which all follow a similar pattern: this happened, she said this, my marriage was like this and I could never figure out whether it was her or me or them who sometimes, you know, when it mattered or even when it didn’t matter, said or did something which, you know, in the great scale of things, sort of might have been the cause but you never really know, do you.

Coming fresh from reading the taut, clipped, information-rich prose of Martin Cruz Smith, Amis’s prose feels like a bloated blancmange.

The narrator’s sod-you attitude

Amis’s attitude – entertainingly stroppy and insubordinate in the straight-laced 1950s – had become a really anti-social, fuck-you attitude by the 1980s. Wouldn’t necessarily matter except that Attitude has replaced all semblance of thought, reflection, of plain intelligence – just as the bloated mannerisms have swamped, eclipsed and devastated what might once have been a style.


Examples of style and attitude

Rather The opening pages emphasise the middle-class Englishness of Stan and Susan. Rather, quite, actually, quite, rather.

They drank a rather good white Burgundy… The sitting room on the first floor had a low ceiling and a rather awkward shape… a specially built wooden case, part of which housed the rather old-fashioned hi-fi… things were not going too badly for her after some rather rough times earlier on… (pp.11-12)

Or After a while I began to circle every time the word ‘or’ was used to express the narrator’s inability to decide between several interpretations of something, or his deliberate decision to highlight that things can have multiple interpretations, or his chronic inability to figure out what the hell he’s trying to say. This might have been interesting if the interpretations were themselves sharp and insightful, but they are always the opposite – throwaway, half-hearted, dazed and confusing, fading away into a general ‘whatever’.

One of the troubles with getting on all right with people like your mother-in-law, or looking as if you did, or trying to, was that people like your wife took to leaving you alone with them for a nice chat. (p.33)

Lady D had managed to keep that sort of feeling more or less to herself. But then of course there had not been anything much in the way of reason or excuse or provocation before. (p.42)

Then I caught Steve’s eye and he recognised me instantly, which does sound like what he should have done in a way, and it was not that he mistook me for someone else he knew or thought he knew, at least that never occurred to me then. (p.85)

Jews, or people who might have been Jews or counted as Jews or Israelis, were after him because he had once known – not, I was sure, ever very well – a girl who was quite likely one sort of Arab or another. (p.87)

When I rang the hospital the next day the response was much as before. Another Asian voice, or quite likely the same one, said Mr Duke was comfortable but, it turned out, was not to be visited – not must on no account be or taking everything into account had better not be, just was not to be. (p.105)

‘You could tell what she meant when she thought she was meaning the opposite or not meaning anything at all… You’re the doctor who’s looking after my son or however you want to put it… I dare say you haven’t finished examining him or whatever you want to call it yet… ‘ (pp.132-133)

There’s a hymn of ‘or’s after Stan has listened to Dr Collings diagnose Steve’s mental illness in terms of seeking escape, building a mental refuge for unbearable pressures in the ‘real’ world, all diagnoses he finds unbearably trendy and meaningless (which is funny, coming from a man half of whose thoughts are meaningless repetitions):

I told myself it had to be, had to make sense somehow, somewhere. The resemblance to TV must be a mistake, an illusion based on my own ignorance, which had made me miss all sorts of subtle points and misunderstand phrases and expressions that were nearly or even exactly the same as bits of drivel but actually conveyed a precise scientific meaning to those in the know, and getting in touch with your own anger and finding out who you really were etc., were technical terms referring to definite, observable processes. Or Collings’s approach was so new that they had not yet worked out a what, a terminology for it. Or she was hopeless at talking about what she did but shit-hot in action. Or something else that made it all right, because something must. Whatever she might say and however she might behave, the bint was a doctor. (p.136)

Obviously this is Stanley the fictional character speaking. But to what extent does his anger at trendy psychobabble, and his resentment of ‘bint doctors’ reflect Amis’s view? Given the evidence of all his other novels, and the many interviews and articles he wrote, the answer must be – quite a lot.

‘Something like mental trouble being caused or anyway helped on by experiences in childhood… So Steve had a breakdown because you took no notice or the wrong sort of notice of him when he was little…’ (p.142)

Collings allowed me plenty of time to take this in by finishing, or so far just going on with, the letter or note she had been writing when I came in. (p.150)

At my side, the nurse or more probably sister made a small sound or movement that might have meant she disagreed. (p.169)

Cloudy and diffuse Even without the ‘or’s proliferating clauses of diminishing meaning, plenty of sentences disappear into gaseous verbosity, with the very conspicuous and deliberate addition of pointless tags: I suppose, on the other hand, sort of, kind of, at least, in a kind of way. So often he just can’t be bothered to define what he means.

It was true she lacked the withdrawn expression to be seen in most women considered to be beautiful, but there ought to have been a word for her combination of features, which was among other things completely distinctive, meaning less good versions of it somehow never seemed to show up, and the obvious word always had a lot to be said for it, quite enough in this case. (p.14)

Notice how the sentence becomes less meaningful as it goes on until it has almost become gibberish. Hundreds of sentences in the book are like this, making the text at times almost unbearably irritating and frustrating to read.

I felt very reluctant to be in his company – oh, I felt plenty of other things too, and disapproved of that one, but there seemed to be nothing I could do about it and for the moment it was neither here nor there. (p.69)

‘There are exceptions, naturally.’
It was such a gift to Nash to say Naturally back that I had no idea how he avoided it, but he did, just pushed his mouth forward and went on staring at me in what seemed to be his way, not offensively, seeing either quite a lot or not much of anything, it was hard to tell. (p.72)

‘Go back to the time you describe, when your son appeared late at night. Isn’t it possible that you were sure then that he was mad,’ – for once, just on that last word, Nash’s voice softened – ‘or nearly sure, or you might have been sure if you hadn’t told yourself you knew nothing about the subject, or you would have been sure if it had been someone less close to you?’ (p.80)

At the end of a fraught interview with Dr Collings there is a moment which epitomises the technique, the pattern or rhythm of so many of these sentences, which 1. open with something arresting 2. then weaken the effect by giving it multiple possible interpretations before 3. dwindling down to the anti-climax of not really being bothered either way.

1. In the middle of [indicating she had gathered enough information, Dr Collings] threw me out completely by giving me a really powerful sexy look, one that almost qualified as a leer. 2. At least that was what I took it to be, though given her skimpy control over her face it might almost equally well have stood for impersonal sympathy or moral disapproval. 3. Not that that mattered much either. (p.162)

It’s a common pattern or thought process, like watching a drunk slowly pass out.

[1] When I asked him what he was doing he took no notice, [2] in fact he looked away and seemed to stare into the next garden or the one further, [3] where there might have been something interesting going on for all I knew. (p.250)

Drunk Of course much of this might be an attempt to capture the thought rhythms of a drunk, an alcoholic. Stanley drinks steadily throughout the book and he regards it as a good sign in the men he meets if they also drink a lot. He goes to the barge party where plenty of middle-aged people drink so much they’re sick, and many meetings and encounters take place down the pub where Stan puts away an impressive amount of scotch and gin.

Thus, many of the events feel marinated in booze, and perhaps the verbose but gaseous style is an attempt to capture that fading of energy, the loss of will in a drunk who gets half-way through a sentence then just can’t be bothered. Blah blah blah ‘or something’:

I felt drunk or something. (p.135)

It showed great powers of something-or-other to have got there unassisted… She had hardly started before I became too drunk to remember afterwards any of the individual bits… (p.143, 145)

Or maybe it isn’t a clever parody of a drunk’s thought processes. Maybe it is just Late Amis.

A bit of stuff going on There’s another mannerism which gets pretty irritating, the way he describes other people’s behaviour as a kind of impersonal event: he observes people as if they are peculiar pieces of machinery rather than fellow human beings to be empathised with. For example, a woman wouldn’t be crying; there would be a bit of tears going on. People wouldn’t be laughing; there’d be some laughing going on over in the corner.

People don’t actively do things; instead, in a variation of the passive voice, there’s a bit of ‘x’ going on. The effect is alienating, and dismissive of people as people, as valid humans, as agents of behaviour: instead they become balls of actions at the periphery of Stan’s consciousness.

As soon as [Nowell] understood what was required of her she started thick-and-thinning away like nobody’s business and after doing enough of it to last me, or herself, said she would come at once. (p.253)

It was Nowell… ‘Darling Stanley.’ A warm hug came my way, one full notch below sexiness but no more and accompanied by the usual good smell. (p.257)

Not ‘she hugged me’. Instead, ‘a warm hug came my way’.

When people are talking to him, he’s inclined to refer to ‘that part’ or ‘that section’ of a discourse. It’s not ungrammatical, but it is another indication of the way the world is held at bay, not engaged with, seen through a not very clean glass, from the isolated zone where our man struggles to make out people, their intentions, their meanings. As Harry Coote is talking to him Stan largely tunes out:

That last section saw me halfway into another jar. (p.196)

That last section, that bit, that part of whatever he was on about, after a bit more of the same kind of thing, she went on for a bit more but I had stopped listening…

At the hospital , after Steve’s relapse, Stan begs Dr Collings to take him back into care but she refuses in a to-and-fro which goes on at some length, initially recounted in some detail, but then:

After a bit more along the same lines I came away, trying not to feel scared about what might be in store. (p.262)

‘After a bit more along the same lines’. The impression is that he can’t be bothered to repeat the full conversation; people just say the same old same old, anyway.

Instead of being sharp and precise, the text and attitude are old, tired, dismissive. He can’t even be bothered to account for the characters he himself has invented. At times, reading this novel, it seems a wonder Amis can be bothered to tell the story at all. Surely he’d be happier slumped, like Stanley, in front of some rubbish on the telly with a large scotch in his hand shouting to his wife in the kitchen, ‘When will dinner be ready?’

In a few days I’ll be reading the next Amis, The Old Devils, and I am praying this diffuse, muddling, indecisive style is an affectation, an exaggerated style and attitude created specially for the character of Stanley Duke, and is not simply the diffuse, muddling, deliberately offensive style of late Amis.


Related links

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

Red Square by Martin Cruz Smith (1992)

Sometimes Arkady had the feeling that while he was away, God had lifted Moscow and turned it upside down. It was a nether-Moscow he had returned to, no longer under the grey hand of the Party. (p.41)

The third in the Arkady Renko series is the longest so far, at 472 pages. Like the first two, it is kicked off by a murder which sets the investigator off on a long and tortuous investigation, and there are other structural echoes of the first two books, too.

But the first and most remarkable thing about the story is the way Arkady has miraculously returned to Moscow and been restored to his old job and rank. In its predecessor, Polar Star, we had seen Arkady on the run from KGB agents and the forces he’d stirred up in his unbending investigation of the murders and the smuggling ring in Gorky Park, forced to flee eastwards from one crappy job to another across Siberia until he reached the end of Russia, Vladivistok, and signed up for a life of misery on the ‘slime line’ of a fishing factory ship.

Psychologically, this felt like the natural culmination of the cynical insubordination, of the outsider mentality, we saw in Gorky Park and when, in the penultimate scene, he goes for a walk on the Arctic ice in the fog, it seems like he really has reached the edge of the world, the uttermost rim of human experience.

To find him back in his Moscow job with all its perks and privileges as if nothing had happened is quite a surprise and pretty jarring. It’s explained away by the fact that he did good service for the State in the previous book, not only solving the murder at the heart of Polar Star, but revealing important American espionage secrets. Psychologically, however, at least to start with, it feels like a retread for him to be back in the capital; but then it slowly unfurls that Moscow is now the capital of an empire on the brink of dissolution, and the story does go on to take him into a series of new and exotic (German) locations. By which time the initial impression is long forgotten.

Red Square

Rudy Rosen The novel starts with Arkady in the Audi of an informant, an underworld fixer and money changer, Rudy Rosen, parked in a kind of underworld fair outside Moscow, surrounded by Chechens, gypsies, mafia, all selling and buying knocked-off goods. Arkady has persuaded Rudy to be a militia informant, and is fixing up the hidden recording equipment he has got Rudy to hide in his car to record his dodgy deals. Arkady gets casually out of the car but has only walked a few yards when it spectacularly blows up. Rudy is burnt to death, along with all his money and the computer disks he’d been proudly showing Arkady, which recorded all his transactions. Like the three faceless bodies in Gorky Park, like the corpse of Zina the fisherwoman in Polar Star, this car bomb is the spark which initiates the entire plot.

Part One – Moscow 6 August – 12 August 1991 (175 pages)

Makhmud and the Chechens Like its predecessor this novel is divided into distinct parts, in this case four. Part one follows Arkady and his team as they go over the crime and ask, Who wanted Rudy dead? Arkady is intrigued by the pretty young forensics woman Polina who, in a great scene, shows him her experiments with home made explosives on a series of cars in a junk yard. Ostensibly the main suspect is one Kim, a Russified Korean who was Rudy’s bodyguard. Arkady’s search for him takes him to lowlife settings and slums around Moscow, and to a meeting with the aged and venerable head of the Chechen mafia, Makhmud, and his scary sons and grandsons.

Boris Benz Arkady quickly comes across the existence of one Boris Benz, a German. In Rudy’s office he discovers a fax machine which keeps sending the same message, ‘Where is Red Square?’ In one of the VHS tapes in Rudy’s flat is a shot which has been spliced into a travelogue of Munich, in which a good-looking Russian woman blows a kiss and mouths ‘I love you’ at the camera. Who is she? Why has the shot been spliced in?

[Tapes play a part in all three novels: in Gorky Park Arkady receives packs of tapes from the KGB which help him piece together connections between the smugglers; in Polar Star the murdered Zina leaves behind a box of cassettes on which she has usefully recorded interviews with her various lovers; here these VHS tapes provide clues to the identities of some of the key players.]

Irina As in the previous novels there is a great deal of threat, atmosphere and tension – but little actual violence. Instead, there is a running thread concerning Irina, the imperious, beautiful young woman he fell in love with during the course of Gorky Park and who he came to a deal about with the authorities – namely, his return to Russia was the price for her freedom in the west. Arkady discovers she has a job reading the news on Radio Liberty, based in Munich, and so his new daily rhythm is to make sure he is by a radio at 8pm to hear her voice, if only for a few minutes. He was interrogated and tortured to reveal her whereabouts but refused to say, not least because he didn’t exactly know – somewhere in America – he carried a torch for her all across Siberia, he is still totally in love with her.

Jaak As previously Arkady has a loyal lieutenant, this time it’s an Estonian, Jaak who, as in Gorky Park, ends up dead. After 100 or more pages of routine investigations Arkady finds Jaak shot through the head in a car which has been driven into the deep pond of swill at a farm, the Lenin’s Path Collective Farm. As in Gorky Park a senior figure in the police is implicated, this time Chief of Criminal Investigation Penyagin, but in a variation his corpse is also in the sunken car (p.155). Why?

Minin As before, Arkady’s steps are dogged by a less experienced detective who is a lickspittle of the higher ups, in this case Minin and, as before, he is surprised when the higher ups in the shape of City Prosecutor Rodionov announce that he is being taken off the case. As before, it seems he is getting too close to a secret which implicates his bosses.

Collapse BUT the big difference between this and the previous two novels is that it is 1991 and Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies – greater openness (glaznost) and economic reform (perestroika) – have led the Soviet Union to the brink of collapse. Democratic elections have resulted in victory for non communist parties, laws are being passed every day dismantling all aspects of the communist system. But instead of releasing a nation of poets and liberal democrats, as some fondly imagined, the slackening of power has led to the rise of virulent nationalist parties in all the satellite nations of the USSR – most of which have declared independence by August 1991 – and within Russia itself has led to the explosion of black markets run by super-violent and unscrupulous gangsters.

Exactly the kind of market Arkady was attending when he saw his informant’s car blown up in front of his eyes and Rudy burned to death. Hence the quote at the top of this blog post and the dominant air of the novel -which is Arkady’s bewilderment at returning to a Moscow transformed from the grey, buttoned-down, morgue-like city of the Cold War, of Gorky Park, to the criminal anarchy of the post-Soviet era.

Arkady was constantly amazed at people’s faith in lies. As if words had the remotest relationship to the truth. (p.139)

Borya Gubenko A typical player in this new capitalist world is Borya Gubenko who makes a living running prostitutes and slot machines in central Moscow hotels. Arkady meets him at the indoor golf range he’s set up to cater to Japanese tourists. It is the brave new world of capitalism and crime.

Max Albov Part of this new situation is ease of travel. In fact, when he meets his bosses, it is a sign of the times that the creepiest person present isn’t KGB or state security, but a figure dressed in an expensive suit and smoothly spoken, who turns out to be a journalist, Max Albov. Back in the day Max defected to the West and made a career there as a commentator on Soviet affairs, not least for Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. Now he has returned and, instead of being immediately imprisoned and interrogated – as in the bad old days – is somehow ordering around Arkady’s own boss, the chief prosecutor Rodionov. Max is a symbol of the way money and shady international deals now trump everything.

Rodionov is warning Arkady off the case (just as his boss Iamskoy did in Gorky Park) but Arkady, typically, refuses to back down. It is Max who suggests a compromise: why not give Arkady some money and a passport to travel to Munich. The mysterious Boris Benz whose name keeps cropping up is German, the fax asking about red square which keeps being sent to Rudy’s flat comes from a Munich number. (And, Arkady thinks, Munich is the base of Radio Free Europe: maybe he can track down Irina. Maybe he can see the woman whose memory kept him going in the darkest days of his exile.) Arkady accepts the offer.

Part two – Munich 12 – 18 August 1991 (162 pages)

So he flies to Munich, is met by the Russian consul Federov who is extremely displeased to see him. Russia has only just opened a consulate here, in the heartland of German business, and is keen to create the right impression. Scruffy, cynical, rule-breaking Arkady is the opposite of that impression.

Here Arkady visits Radio Free Europe and finally meets Irina. To cut a long story short she is initially extremely stand-offish, full of anger that he never emigrated, defected or escaped as so many of the other writers and journalists at RFE had. During these days of misery and rejection, Arkady is helped a lot by a loveable emigre, Stas, who puts him up,  gives him money and support. But Arkady’s persistence and obvious devotion eventually wear Irina down until, in a moving scene, they finally make love in his empty apartment.

As to the investigation, Arkady tracks down the address of the mysterious Benz but never sees him. Instead he bluffs his way into meeting the head of a Munich bank whose letterhead he sees on a letter addressed to Benz. He tries to bluff the old banker into revealing secrets but only succeeds in getting the old man’s son called in, Peter Schiller who turns out to be a detective in the Bavarian police. Oh. After some initial unpleasantness, however, Schiller turns into a valuable ally. Not least after Tommy, one of the emigres at RFE, takes Arkady out to whorehouse on the edge of town where he’s heard tell of Benz. Benz isn’t there and Schiller detains Arkady and, when they head back into town they both discover Tommy’s old Trabant shunted off the motorway into a concrete stanchion and blazing alight. Tommy is dead and burning to a crisp like Rudy.

In Munich Arkady finds the woman depicted blowing a kiss on Rudy’s VHS tape. She is Rita Benz, a Russian prostitute who married a Jew but came to Munich instead of Israel. Here she has reinvented herself as the owner of an upmarket art gallery. Turns out Irina, who Arkady had set free in New York, drifted into the NY art world, working at various art galleries. It was in this cosmopolitan milieu that Max found her and brought her to Germany to work on the radio – but she also kept up her gallery work and helps Rita with her gallery. In fact, there is a big show about to be launched at her Berlin branch. ‘Why not come along?’ asks the ever-slippery Max Albov.

Part three – Berlin 18 – 20 August 1991 (83 pages)

The gritty, well-informed, well-researched male narrator describing the streets and history of Berlin unavoidably reminded me of Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson novels. Here, in this novel, 1990s Berlin, less than a year after the fall of the wall, has an unreal air, especially as Renko recognises Russian, Chechen and Uzbek mafia, new, anarchic threats the local police don’t know how to manage.

At Rita Benz’s art gallery a number of things fall into place. As I had begun to suspect, the entire novel is about modern art, specifically about the red square painted by the Russian modernist painter Malevich. Since I happen to have been to two exhibitions about Malevich in the last six months, as soon as Modern Art began to be mentioned I put 2 and 2 together.

The red square is the centrepiece of Rita Benz’s exhibition. Now Arkady realises Rudy, the low level crook in Moscow, had stumbled on a conspiracy to smuggle modernist art treasures out of the USSR – this red square was the first to be smuggled out and was being exhibited before being sold in a set of galleries established purely to give the operation credibility and respectability. Arkady realises there is no Boris Benz: it is a fake name invented by Borya Gubenko, one of the smugglers.

In a scary sequence Arkady encounters Borya at the Brandenburg gate, thinking they’re going to talk about the smuggling, but Borya clobbers him and loads him into a car. Wondering why he isn’t being shot straight away, Arkady finds himself hussled into a stylish German sauna. Here he is ushered into the steam room being used by Chechen mafia leader Makhmud and, again, Arkady thinks he’s been brought as some kind of go-between between Borya’s mob and the Chechens, only to be brutally knocked unconscious.

When he awakes it is to find a knife in his hands and Makhmud’s slaughtered body leaking blood everywhere. Makhmud’s son enters the steamed-up steam room and there is a hair-raising scene as Arkady tries to make his way to the door in the dense fog silently. Doesn’t work and there is a vicious fight in which Arkady manages to kill the son, not without being badly cut himself (echoes of the steam room scene in Gorky Park and the desperate knife fight in the university pool.)

Arkady makes it back to the apartment Max fixed him up with. He has the sub-machinegun he took from the Chechens. He lies on the floor opposite the door waiting for an attack. Instead Irina enters. This is the reconciliation scene which leads to them making love. Later there’s more movement outside the door but it is Peter Schiller, the dependable Munich policeman. In a scene designed for the movies, he hears movement outside and empties four magazines of machine gun through the wall. When they go outside four Chechens are lying dead. Time to get out of town, says Peter. And flights will be easy.

Why? asks Irina. ‘Haven’t you heard?’ says Peter. ‘There’s been a coup in Moscow. People are leaving not going back.’ Arkady has one last piece of business which is to stake out Rita’s apartment. When she leaves she is carrying a big bag. It contains Malevich’s red square rolled up. Arkady points a gun at her and relieves her of the painting. Arkady knows she will tell Max and Borya he’s returning to Moscow with the painting. He wants them to be waiting.

Part 4 – Moscow 21 August 1991 (35 pages)

Irina, Arkady and the loyal Stas take a charter flight packed with journalists and emigre Russians to Moscow arriving on the decisive night of the three-day coup against Mikhael Gorbachev. He is picked up almost immediately by his subordinate Minin, now definitely working for the bad guys, for he is accompanied by Kim who – Arkady confirms – helped murder Rudy in the opening scene.

In a thrilling sequence Arkady, before they collar him, fixes up a primitive bomb in the exhaust of Kim’s motorbike. He is driving his car on the motorway at Minin’s gunpoint when they see Kim’s bike begin to erupt in flames. Arkady kicks open the passenger door and kicks Minin out, not without a few shots being wildly fired at him.

Arkady heads out to the Lenin’s Path Collective Farm. Here he finds the ever-smooth Max Albov supervising the fed-up Borya to load up a lorry with … well, with a huge horde of avant-garde art. Seems they collaborated with Chief of Criminal Investigation Penyagin to steal these long-hidden art treasures and stash them here in the improbable setting of nuclear fallout shelters hidden in the innocent-looking farm. Fittingly, since this is where they killed Jaak and Penyagin who objected to Jaak’s murder, it is here there is a big shootout. Arkady manages to shoot Borya dead, after the former has kicked and crippled him and just missed with his own gun. During this excitement Max makes it to his Merc and gets away.

Arkady follows him into the heart of Moscow on the historic evening when the Russian parliament – holding out against the plotters of the military coup – is surrounded by a people’s cordon of the Russian masses, for once awakened from their torpor and shame to act decisively for freedom. Among the vast crowds Arkady sees people he knows and loves – Polina, Stas and Irina high up in the barricades. Things take a turn for the worse when Max, ahead of him, tells a couple of balaclava-wearing militiamen with machine guns that Arkady is a murderer. Unfortunately for Max, they turn out to be the Chechen mafia boss Makhmud’s grandsons, well aware that their leader was murdered by Max’s associate, Borya. Screaming for help, smooth-talking Max is carried away by the two heavies to meet his doom which will not be pleasant. [It feels like sleight of hand that Arkady, who was so successfully framed by Borya, has somehow  now slipped free of their vendetta.] Who cares? On the last page Arkady is reunited with Irina on the barricades on this day of jubilation and celebration for all Russia.


Father

No fictional detective is without his secret sorrows. Apart from the obvious one of his long-cherished, long frustrated love for Irina, the other one is Arkady’s relationship with his father, former General Kyril Ilyich Renko (p.136). The general was a much-decorated hero of ‘the Great Patriotic War’. His tank command was overrun and surrounded by the German Blitzkrieg invasion of the USSR in June 1941. But did he surrender? No, he organised his command into a guerrilla force marauding behind the German lines and fighting his way back to the front. He became Stalin’s favourite general, leading the fightback against the Germans, seeing action in the Ukraine and on the long haul to Berlin.

He survived the war to become an honoured guest at Stalin’s dacha, where scared men stayed up all night drinking and singing with the terrible dictator, sometimes assisting him to draw up the long lists of people scheduled for liquidation. Arkady (44 in 1981, born in 1937? 16 when Stalin died in 1953?) remembers the stories of the Great Leader, and remembers with searing bitterness growing up kicked, beaten and abused by a father for whom he was a miserable failure and disappointment. And – most scathing of all – he remembers as a boy seeing the body of his mother, who killed herself in a lake near their home – floating just under the surface of the water. For Arkady, his bullying abusive father killed her as surely as if he’d shot her.

In the Moscow section, his father dies and he is press-ganged into attending the funeral where one old general after another steps forward to praise the deceased who Arkady can only think of as a murderer. And yet, throughout the text, random characters are likely to hear his family name and associate him with the heroic general, and always draw the same conclusion – ‘Oh dear… and you’re his son. He must be disappointed.’ Arkady can’t escape the long shadow of the past just as the Soviet Union can’t escape the crimes of Lenin, Stalin, and the bloodbath of the war.


Poetry

The depth and thoroughness of Cruz Smith’s cultural and historical research is one element which gives the book a deeply satisfying intellectual depth. But over and above that, Smith is a poet in prose. Beautifully turned phrases escape his pen at will and scatter across the text making the book an almost physical joy to read.

From the back of the shop, his cigarette still in his left hand, Arkady walked across a yard seeded with broken glass to the main street. On it, apartment buildings rusted in seams along drainpipes and window casings. Cars had the creased and rusted look of wrecks. (p.33)

Jaak drove, skipping lanes in the manner of a virtuoso pianist going up and down a keyboard. (p.58)

A far longer queue, all male, stretched from a vodka shop at the corner. Drunks sagged and leaned like broken pickets on a fence. (p.60)

Arkady had seen pictures of mummified figures dug from the ashes of Pompeii. They looked like Makhmud, bent and gaunt, no lashes or eyebrows, skin a parchment grey. Even his voice sounded burned. (p.68)

‘They deserve everything that’s happening to them. They deserve us.’ Makhmud’s eyes became their most intense, dead coals come alive, and then dimmed. His fingers unclenched and released Arkady’s lapel. Fatigue folded into a smile across his face. (p.72)

Out on the river, the last hydrofoil slid by like a snake of lights. (p.106)

[The old men’s] voices had the hollow tremor of busted cellos. (p.140)

‘That’s all,’ he said to Federov, who could have been smoke he was gone so fast. (p.187)

Benz’s address was between two enormous houses done in coquettish Jugendstil, the German answer to Art Nouveau. They looked like a pair of matrons peeping over fans. (p.204)

He noticed a black and white photograph of rubble and burned walls. A roof had collapsed like a tent on a skirt of bricks. (p.254)

An electrically controlled window slid down, revealing the driver wearing dark sailing glasses with a red cord. His smile seemed to have more than two rows of teeth. (p.285)

Birds collected. The park was rich in them; velvet-headed mallards, wood ducks, wigeons and teal appeared out of the mist, breaking the surface of the water into spoons of light. Shearwaters flew as acrobatically as signatures; geese dropped like sacks. (p.338)

The most casual scenes or moments come alive in his imagination. This is why I read fiction but not much fiction is as uplifting as Cruz Smith’s.

A cycle path had been laid out; cyclists in helmets and skin-tight outfits rode in single file, flying like flags on a motorcade. (p.363)

Soviet

All three novels bespeak an astonishing amount of research into all aspects of Russian life, culture and history. What is it that makes you so convinced Arkady is Russian and that your are in Moscow? Half way through Polar Star I realised part of the way Smith conveys the sense of the Soviet Union, of Russian-ness, is by the simple expedient of having a sentence or paragraph describing an aspect of Soviet life on almost every page. The repetition soon creates the impression that you know Russian-ness, that you inhabit this country and its troubled psyche.

Soviet garages were mysteries because steel siding was not legally for sale to private citizens, yet garages constructed of such siding continued to appear magically in courtyards and multiply in rows down backstreets. (p.25)

‘Russians? I feel sorry for Russian men. They’re lazy, useless, drunk.’
‘But in bed?’ Jaak asked.
‘That’s what I was talking about,’ Julya said. (p.28)

Other models [in the museum] continued the historical survey of Soviet crime. Not a tradition of subtlety, Arkady thought. (p.52)

‘You mean a war between Moscow businessmen and bloodthirsty Chechens? We’re always the mad dogs; Russians are always the victims.’ (p.71)

The militia had invested in German and Swedish gear, spectrographs and haemotypes, which lay unused for lack of parts or dearth of funds. There was no computer of matching of blood or numberplates, let alone of something so laughably out of reach as ‘genetic fingerprints’. What Soviet forensic labs possessed were archaic chemistry sets of blackened test tubes, gas burners and curlicues of glass piping that the West hadn’t seen in fifty years. (p.125)

The Russia of 1991 is a place of almost complete economic collapse, no food anywhere, long queues of miserable people waiting to be doled out globs of grey dough fried in old oil or diseased cabbages, the squalor and the daily struggle to survive everywhere are evinced in even the smallest details. Arkady meets a state official:

Bureaucrats survived on the butter, bread and sausage they took home from cafeterias. [His] jacket was loose and its pockets were jowls dappled with grease. (p.135)

There was an expression: a Russian is not drunk while there is a single blade of grass to hold on to. (p.168)

‘You know you’re such a typical Soviet cripple. You’re so unused to food that you can’t even buy it when it’s all around you.’ (p.207)

In Moscow, public booths were gutted or out of order. Phones, when they rang, were usually ignored. (p.209)

In Moscow, he could pass as one scarecrow among many; among the robust sausage-eaters of Munich, he was frighteningly unique. (p.212)

‘I don’t want to put Irina in the position of telling the Russian people that their country is a rotting corpse, a Lazarus beyond resurrection, and that they should lie down and not even try to get up.’ (p.222)

Arkady took small, reverent sips because it was so different from sour, muddy Soviet beer. (p.224)

At any decent Russian party there were arguments and a girl crying at the bottom of the stairs. (p.246)

On the walls were photographs of the famous poet Tsvetayeva, who had emigrated to Paris with her husband, an assassin. Even by Russian standards it had been a troubled marriage. (p.312)

In 1991 the fourteen other nations which made up the USSR had mostly declared their independence and this allowed more free travel than ever before with the result that Moscow is pullulating with not only the Chechen mafia who play a role in the novel, but with Uzbeks, Tartars, Georgians, Ukrainians, Jaak the Estonian and so on. Smith reminds you again and again of the sheer scale and scope of Russia, the size of the country, the complexity of its history, the misery of its plight. One short scene in particular, one pair of sentences, took my breath away. Arkady interviews an Uzbek prostitute working by the roadside in Munich, until she gets fed up:

She set her face and started walking again, wobbling on her heels. Uzbeks had once been the Golden Horde of Tamerlane that had swept from Mongolia to Moscow. This was the end, [a prostitute] stumbling along the autobahn. (p.324)

An example of the way Smith’s mind works all the angles, in even the most banal scene finding the historical, the poetic perspective, dazzling with the depth of his knowledge and the dexterous way he deploys it in scintillating sentences.

This is a really cracking, deeply informative, entertaining, exciting and beautifully written book.


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’.

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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