The Negotiator by Frederick Forsyth (1989)

Of all the thriller writers I’ve been reading, Forsyth’s come closest to the Wikipedia definition of ‘airport novels’. They are big (this one has 506 pages), with shiny covers embossed with the author’s name bigger than the title (branding), the plot is long and complex and absolutely stuffed with factual background, all of which you completely forget the second you put it down.

The plot

Like The Fourth Protocol, the plot begins in the present and goes forward into an increasingly hypothetical (and, as it turns out, completely inaccurate) future, dealing with the highest possible international politics – the superpower relationship between the USA and the USSR. This one goes on through 1990 and 1991 ie into the future relative to when it was published.

In this parallel universe Ronald Reagan wasn’t succeeded as US President by George Bush Snr but by a tall, noble academic, John Cormack. He meets and gets on amazingly well with Russia’s new young leader, Mikhail Gorbachev and they both move their nations towards a massive arms reduction deal, named the Nantucket Plan, after the East Coast American resort where they meet and agree it.

But elements in both countries are, predictably, unhappy.

Conspiracies

In the US a top oil man, Cyrus Miller, having received a report claiming the US will run out of oil in 30 years, sets in train a wild conspiracy to have Iranian terrorists assassinate the entire House of Saud in Saudi Arabia and set up a fundamentalist Shia regime in the country. The other countries in the region will beg the USA to intervene and overthrow it, after which they’ll be able to impose their own ‘puppet’ Arab leader who will give the US preferential oil deals forever. Sounds realistic, eh?

Miller and his rich, mad Yankee colleagues call themselves the Alamo Group and the plan to overthrow the Saudis in what they dub Plan Bowie. But they realise a major stumbling block to the scheme is the decent honourable man who sits in the White House. He must be undermined somehow. This is doubly advantageous since the patriots among them think Cormack must be a commie for making a deal with Gorbachev. And they are able to recruit some very senior arms manufacturers into the conspiracy, since they will suffer badly if the government stops buying their expensive weaponry. With all this motivation, the Group hire lobbyists and brief tame politicians to start a whispering campaign against Cormack.

But one of the wilder of the conspirators hires an ex-CIA maverick, Irving Moss (it turns out, a known torturer and fan of child pornography), who devises a much quicker, more vicious approach. Known only to a handful of the Alamo, Moss hires some ruthless European mercenary soldiers to kidnap the President’s son, Simon Cormack, who is on a year’s study at Oxford University.

The kidnap

On page 97, Simon is out on his usual early morning country run – as so many American scholars to Oxford he is a very fit athlete as well as an intellectual achiever – when he is ambushed by a group of balaclavaed men. They leap out of an innocent-looking grocer’s van, brutally machine gun the Special Branch and CIA guards following Simon and bundle him into the back of the van. This then trundles off through the countryside to a nearby farm, where they switch to a saloon car and drive fast down to London, round the M25, and out to an anonymous house in an anonymous estate in an anonymous town where they lock Simon in a purpose-built cellar-cum-dungeon and settle down for the negotiations.

For the next 200 pages, from roughly page 100 to page 300, the novel is as exciting and nailbiting as The Day of The Jackal, easily the best, most involving prose Forsyth had written since then. He gives one of his characteristically thorough, hugely well-informed and completely convincing accounts of how alarm bells ring with the local police, the Special Branch, the Met, the SAS, how Whitehall is alerted and the Prime Minster woken up to phone the US President in person, and all branches of US security dragged out of their beds to deal with the crisis.

The man they call, simply, Quinn

Even the deployment of some hefty clichés doesn’t disturb the drive of the narrative. For when the President asks his cabinet who is the best hostage negotiator in the country, the head of the CIA says there’s only one man for the job, the man they call simply – Quinn. ‘But Mr President, I warn you he’s a maverick’. Yes, he’s a tough-minded loner who insists on doing it his own way etc. A lot later in the book, a hotel receptionist thinks to herself that Quinn ‘looked a bit like that gentleman who was always asking people to make his day’ (p.264) and the scenes where we track down Quinn to the quiet Spanish village where he has retired to reminded me of the opening of Clint Eastwood’s movie Firefox (1982), in which the Army/CIA etc come begging the grizzled old vet to come out of retirement ‘to do one last job’. ‘Your country needs you Bob [Hank, Chuck, Quinn etc]’.

Despite the corniness of many elements – Quinn is assigned two CIA minders, one a naive young newbie (McCrea), one a stunning young woman who he ends up falling in love with (Sam Somerville) – the description of his recruitment and briefing and transport to London, the setting up of a safe house, the elaborate wiring and phone tapping laid on by the CIA and MI5 and then the genuinely nerve-racking negotiations with the tough, professional kidnappers is all brilliantly and meticulously described.

I was willing the final exchange of hostage and ransom to go smoothly and was genuinely devastated when it goes very badly wrong, devastatingly wrong, with the horrible murder of the young American.

Part two – payback

Quinn is not exactly implicated in young Simon’s death, but he is widely blamed for his unconventional and maverick approach and so he drops off the radar for part two of the novel in which he and the gorgeous, nubile CIA agent Sam Somerville set about tracking down the kidnappers.

Again with meticulous and in-depth background research Forsyth lays a fascinating trail for them to follow across northern Europe as the kidnappers are revealed to be mercenaries who met in Africa during various post-colonial wars, most notably in the Congo. (The background here overlaps with the deep knowledge of the subject Forsyth displayed in his ‘manual for mercenaries’, The Dogs of War.)

The tiny clue which gives them away is that Quinn spotted on one of the hands of the otherwise hooded and anonymous men, the tattoo of a spider and web, the symbol of one of the African mercenary groups, and which explains the spider in a web logo on all versions of the novel’s cover.

But, despite their brilliant detective work and calling in favours from well-placed policemen in Belgium, Germany and Holland, Quinn and Sam arrive at each location only to find the man they want already assassinated. Someone is one step ahead of them and liquidating the witnesses.

The President Quinn needs to be replaced

Meanwhile, in a separate strand, forensic scientists in Britain have established beyond doubt that the small bomb used to blow up poor Simon Cormack was manufactured in every detail in the Soviet Union. ‘Accidentally’ leaked to the press and TV, this revelation causes a storm of indignation – the President’s son murdered by the commies!! – with Soviet embassies attacked and burned in US cities etc and the whole arms reduction, Nantucket Treaty, in tatters. Excellent news – for the military and arms manufacturers.

Meanwhile, Plan Bowie has had exactly the effect on the President which its wicked progenitors intended, and he is photographed at his son’s funeral, a broken man, and is almost incapable of governing in the weeks that follow. Slowly his cabinet realises they might have to invoke Amendment 25 of the US Constitution, which allows them to relieve the President of his duties. So Quinn and Sam’s travels around Europe in quest of the kidnappers are set against the timeline to the President’s deposition in Washington.

On Quinn’s tail

When they finally track down the leader of the kidnappers – ‘Zack’ – to a bar in Paris they barely have time to establish that a) they didn’t murder the President’s son b) they took detailed instructions from ‘that fat man’, before assassins riddle the bar with Armalite bullets, killing Zack with Quinn and Sam only just escaping through the back and over the wall.

Quinn realises their steps are being tracked and they locate a tracker and bug which have somehow been placed in the handbag Sam bought in London. Aha. That’s how the bad guys were always one step ahead – they were listening to Quinn and Sam working out the location of each of the kidnappers, then beating them to the man in time to execute him.

Corsica

Quinn despatches Sam to a safe house on the Costa del Sol (minded by some London gangland crooks who owe him a few favours) and goes after the last of the suspects, a hardened Corsican mafia boss, Orsini, holed up in his tiny village in the mountains of Corsica. This sequence is powerfully described – the attempt to assassinate Quinn in his village hotel room (which he foils), followed by his tracking of the man through the dense underbrush on the mountainside, the famous maquis.

Quinn is kidnapped

But in the inevitable shootout Orsini dies without revealing the name of ‘the fat man’ who hired them all, the trail goes cold and Quinn heads back to London, dejected. He has only just arrived in a taxi from Heathrow and is walking up the steps to the hotel he’s booked into when a posh Englishman stabs him in the leg with a poisoned umbrella tip, then and asks the hotel staff to help carry a collapsing Quinn into a waiting car.

Quinn wakes up in a cell and for a moment thinks he has been kidnapped by the gang or whoever is behind them. But he is treated civilly and brought upstairs into the stylish surroundings of – the Russian embassy in Kensington! The urbane and civilised Russian KGB colonel apologises for abducting him like this, but the Russians are very upset at being framed like this. They have tracked down a party of Americans who flew to Yugoslavia a few months earlier, and then took a helicopter to Baku. Here they visited a weapons research centre. The Russians now think this was by agreement with the Head of KGB South (himself now under arrest) and it was here they got the parts necessary to build the micro-bomb into the leather belt which Orsini gave Simon Cormack to wear, along with clean jeans and T-shirt just before he was released. The KGB man shows him all the photographic and documentary evidence and Quinn believes him.

The Russians now give Quinn a new identity, a new haircut, a Canadian passport and money, instruct him to fly to Dublin, then to Canada, then travel into America and find the men who organised the kidnap and publish the truth. Quinn accepts.

Vermont

Quinn flies into Canada then makes his way across the border and holes up in a log cabin high in the mountains of Vermont where at this time of year (November) it is absolutely freezing cold and deep in snow – think the Alps or Siberia. From here he sends several messages: one a phone call to Sam designed to be intercepted, telling her the trail has gone cold. Another is a letter he arranges to be delivered her by hand telling her to bring his trusted friend David Weintraub up to the Vermont retreat, where they can plan how to track down the mysterious ‘fat man’.

Except that this message, also, was intercepted and the fat man comes to him. Sam dutifully collects the person she is told is David Weintraub, along with the junior CIA agent (McCrea) assigned to stay with Quinn in his hotel room all those weeks before. But as Quinn steps out of the cabin into the snow to greet the arriving car, it is not Weintraub but the psychopath Irving Moss who steps out, pointing a gun at him. And the innocent, youthful-looking Duncan McCrea pulls a gun too. Turns out they met in Central America, on one of the US’s countless dirty assignments, discovered they shared a taste for torture and assassination, and Moss recruited McCrea to the CIA (before he was himself sacked).

So McCrea, in Quinn’s room all through the negotiations, was a hired hand of Moss and therefore of the Alamo Conspiracy all along. Now Moss interrogates Quinn for everything he knows, realises he doesn’t know the identities of the men at the top, no harm has been done and so takes him out into the snowdrift woods at the back of the hut to execute him then throw his body into a crevasse. Except that a shot rings out and it is Moss who falls to the ground, gushing blood. Crikey. In a brilliantly preposterous, witty and laugh-out loud moment, it turns out it is the ‘posh Englishman’ – Andrei – who stabbed Quinn with the poisoned umbrella tip back in London. The KGB colonel who had briefed Quinn and given him his Canadian passport back in London, had already revealed that Andrei the Cossack was one of his best operatives; now we learn that Andrei tailed Quinn to Canada, then Vermont, and has been staking out his cabin for precisely such an eventuality.

Quinn called across to him.
‘As they say in your country, spasibo.’
The man’s half-frozen face gave a flicker of a smile. When he spoke, Andrei the Cossack still used the tones of London’s clubland.
‘As they say in your country, old boy, have a nice day.’ (p.483)

Sometimes you wonder whether Forsyth is testing how preposterous he can make his plots before the reader puts down the book in disgust. Quinn takes the dead man’s rifle and returns to find the baby-faced sadist McCrea has got as far as stripping Sam naked, tying her to the bed face down and is about to start whipping her with wire. Quinn shoots him dead, unties Sam and cradles her as she cries, which she does for days.

Washington finale

Sam returns to Washington while Quinn searches Moss’s body and comes up with an ancient address book. All the names and numbers are in code. In these last few pages, Quinn works in partnership with Sam, working out permutations of the code, then communicating over a safe line to get Sam to check the numbers in Washington. Finally, a likely contender emerges, a phone number in the prestigious Georgetown district.

Quinn phones this number, pretending to be Moss and the voice at the other end acknowledges him. Bingo! It’s their man. Quinn/Moss demands more money. The voice at the other end hesitates, and then agrees. Quinn recognises it now. It belongs to a member of the President’s cabinet, a close personal adviser. My God, he was behind the whole thing. Forsyth doesn’t identify him, to keep the tension up.

Now Moss/Quinn claims he has liquidated Quinn and the girl but found a manuscript which tells the whole story. He wants more money to hand it over. The voice reluctantly agrees and they arrange a meeting after midnight near the Vietnam Memorial on the Mall. There is an atmospheric sequence in which Quinn stakes out the VIP’s house and then quietly follows his long limousine to the rendezvous.

When the nervous VIP sees it is Quinn and not Moss come to meet him, he nearly wets himself. There is a classic ‘recognition’ scene where he admits full responsibility for the entire conspiracy, saying it had to be done, President Cormack has to be brought down in order to save the US of A. He hands over the check for $5 million and Quinn gives him a (worthless) manuscript. He is more relaxed and feeling safe when Quinn says he got a cab there and asks for a lift, so the now-relieved man says sure, my limousine is just over here…

Finale

In the final scenes Quinn phones the President (who had given him his personal number during the hostage negotiations) and tells him to take receipt of the manuscript he’s couriering over. A few days later the President chairs a meeting of his cabinet. a) He is completely restored to his old self, masterful, in control. b) The assembled forces of CIA, FBI, various security forces, all confirm every detail of Quinn’s report down to the make of the bullets at each execution scene. It was not the Russians. It was a homegrown cadre of lunatic right-wing conspirators. c) We see the conspirators being rounded up and arrested or managing to commit suicide as the cops arrive, including the men who had been planning the mad coup in Saudi Arabia. d) The President’s men unanimously agree Quinn was completely right all the way through and did as much as any man could do. e) The President calls off the manhunt for Quinn. Let him go free.

In the final scene Quinn boards a BA flight to Spain, He is going back to tend his vineyard. He is met by his beloved Sam. Yes she will come with him to Spain, yes she will marry him. They embrace and he drops his newspaper which carries two news stories:

  • The President’s close friend and Treasury Secretary Hubert Reed was found dead at the wheel of his limousine which seems to have crashed into the river Potomac. Aha. So it was he that Quinn met near the Memorial. Are we to assume that Quinn murdered him in an act of vigilante justice?
  • An anonymous donation of $5 million has been received by a hospital for paraplegic Vietnam veterans. Quinn has paid his dues and, in some measure, Forsyth has paid his respects to the 58,000 men who died in that war, and to the hundreds of thousands who were physically or mentally scarred by it.

Facts facts facts

If you like pages of factual explanation and background, you will love Forsyth’s novels. Pages and pages are devoted to brisk, no-nonsense briefings about every place, organisation, person, country, city, town, every piece of hardware and equipment the story touches. If you want to know:

  • what the career of a senior KGB man looks like
  • a history of OPEC
  • an explanation of Islam with special emphasis on the distinction between Shia and Sunni
  • the precise layout of Neill Air Force base
  • who the martyrs commemorated in Oxford’s Martys Memorial were
  • a history of Special Forces operations in Vietnam
  • a detailed breakdown of US military spend in Europe
  • an explanation of KGB personnel in Amman, Jordan
  • exactly who attends British Government COBRA meetings and what their roles and responsibilities are
  • what the 13 branches of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Operations Department do
  • that a USAF VC20A is the military equivalent of the Gulfstream Three, complete with two Rolls Royce Spey 511 engines
  • how to negotiate with professional kidnappers
  • how much fuel a stripped down F-15 Eagle needs to cross the Atlantic
  • a potted history of European mercenaries involved in Congo, Biafra and Rwanda in the 1960s
  • the street layouts of central London, Washington, Paris, Brussels
  • the precise location of MOSSAD’s headquarters in Tel Aviv

and much much more along the same lines, then you will love this novel.

As for complaining out that there is little or no psychology in these books, that the characters are paper-thin stereotypes (tall dignified US President, tough Euro mercenaries, tall taciturn hero, nubile sexually available girly sidekick) that doesn’t stop lots of people loving the James Bond novels and the even shallower Bond movies.

Too much plot

What stops Forsyth’s novels being made into the movies they feel like they want to be, or even being taken seriously, is the quite obvious overload of plot. Just American right-wingers seeking to sabotage a liberal President’s arms reduction treaty with the commies would have been enough, more than enough. It is way over-egging it to add in a massive conspiracy to overthrow the entire government of Saudi Arabia and replace it with a firebreathing Shia cleric (as the book progresses that whole storyline, which dominates the first 100 pages, is slowly forgotten). But also in the first hundred pages had been some kind of parallel conspiracy the KGB was hatching to invade an unnamed Arab country (?) This is completely forgotten about by the end of the book, which turns into something very different, ‘the Americans are their own worst enemies’ yarn.

If you can buy into the conventions of the genre and put to one side the stereotypical characters and the over-complex plot, this book is worth reading for the very thrilling central 200 pages.


Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

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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