Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (2003)

I went back to my apartment from which no policeman could evict me now. There was no one home, and finally I was able to weep freely. To weep for my husband, who perished in the cellars of the Lubyanka, when he was thirty-seven years old, at the height of his powers and talent; for my children, who grew up orphans, stigmatised as the children of enemies of the people; for my parents, who died of grief; for Nikolai, who was tortured in the camps; and for all of my friends who never lived to be rehabilitated but lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma.
(Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, labour economist, arrested in 1936, released in 1954, describing her formal exoneration in 1956, quoted on page 461)

Applebaum is not just a leading researcher and scholar of 20th century Russian history, she is also a senior journalist, having worked for The Economist, The Spectator and The Washington Post. This explains much of the power of this book. Of course the subject matter is horrifying, but Applebaum also knows how to tell a good story, to explain complex issues, and to put the key points clearly and forcefully.

Her terrifying history of the Soviet system of prison labour camps, or ‘gulags’, is in three parts: part one the rise from 1917 to 1939 – then part two, 250 pages describing in eye-watering detail the horrifically barbarous reality of ‘life’ in the camps – then part three, describing the further rise of the gulag system after the Second World War, before its long, slow decline after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Key learnings

Big Russia is the largest country in the world, spanning 12 time zones. Most of the east, especially the north east, is uninhabited frozen tundra. The Tsars had a long history of not only locking up political opponents but sending them into exile at remote settlements, far, far from the key cities of the West, Moscow and St Petersburg. I.e. the communists were building on an already well-established Russian tradition.

Empty Moreover, there was a long-established tradition of trying to populate the vast open spaces of continental Russia. Catherine the Great was concerned all her reign with this ambition, and it is described as a key aspect of domestic policy in Dominic Lieven’s history of Russia before the Great War, Towards The Flame.

Forced labour Russia also had a well-established tradition of using forced serf labour to build grandiose projects. The most famous was Peter the Great’s creation of St Petersburg out of a swamp, using vast numbers of forced peasant labour. Everyone remembers Peter the Great – tourists ooh and aah over the beautiful boulevards. No one remembers the hundreds of thousands of forced labourers who worked and died in squalid conditions to build it.

Thus, the idea of setting up prison camps far away from the main cities, in the remotest distant parts of Russia, with a view to a) settling them b) developing untapped mineral wealth, had ample precedents in Tsarist practice. But the communists took it to a whole new level.

GULAG is an acronym standing for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerej or Main Camps’ Administration. I was struck by the hideous coincidence that the Russians used the same term as the Nazis (and which therefore appears in so much Holocaust literature such as Primo Levi), Lager. Hence its abbreviated appearance as the suffix of numerous specific camps: Dallag, Dmitlag, Lokchimlag, Vishlag, Sevvostlag.

Concentration camp Applebaum gives a brief history of the term ‘concentration camp’ which I thought was invented by the British during the Boer War, but apparently was coined by the Spanish. In 1895 they began a policy of reconcentracion to remove peasants from the land and concentrate them in camps, so as to annihilate the troublesome Cuban independence movement (p.19) – a practice copied by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against the Herero tribespeople in South-West Africa, and more or less every other colonial nation, at some point.

She defines a concentration camp as a prison camp where people are put not for specific crimes they’ve committed but for who they are. ‘Enemy of the people’, ‘saboteur’, ‘traitor’, these terms meant more or less anything the authorities wanted them to.

People at the time, in Russia and abroad, thought there was some vestige of ‘justice’ in the system i.e. that people were imprisoned because they had done something ‘wrong’. It took many a long time to grasp that ‘revolutionary justice’ wasn’t concerned with individuals but, like everything else in a centrally managed state, ran on a quota system. A certain number of traitors needed to be rounded up each year, targets were set, so ‘traitors’ were found and arrested.

Once the Soviet authorities had established complete freedom to arrest and sentence whoever they wanted, they could also use the system for practical ends. When the state needed engineers and geologists to help map out the vast projects to be built by forced labour, such as the White Sea Canal – they simply arrested and imprisoned leading geologists and engineers. ‘Recruitment by arrest’. Simple as that.

Camp life I was tempted to skip the central section about life in the camp but it in fact turned out to be absolutely riveting, much more interesting than the factual history. Applebaum has personally interviewed scores of survivors of the camps, and weaves this testimony in with selections from the hundreds of Gulag memoirs to give a fascinating social history of all aspects of camp life, beginning with the experience of arrest, imprisonment and the invariably nightmare experience of train shipment thousands of miles.

Of the first 16,000 prisoners entrained right across continental Russia to Vladivostock then piled into completely unprepared cargo ships to be sent to Magadan, the wretched port which was the jumping off point for the bitter and fatal Kolyma mining area in the far north-east of Russia, only 10,000 made it to Magada, and half of them were dead within the first year of labour.

The nature of the ‘work’ in the camps, the special destinies of women and children, the nature of death – including suicides – methods of escape and, above all, the multifarious strategies of survival prisoners adopted, are all described in fascinating and appalling detail.

Memoirists The two top Gulag memoirists are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago) and Varlaam Shalamov (The Kolyma Tales), though we also hear a lot from Alexander Dolgun, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Leonid Finkelstein and Lev Razgon,

Russia

The net effect of the book is to make me fear and dislike Russia even more.

The failure of state planned economies State-controlled communism never did or could work. No matter what the rhetoric emitted by its propaganda departments and foreign fans, the Soviet system amounted to a vast bureaucracy of central planners laying down impossible targets for every aspect of economic production and a) they didn’t know what they were talking about b) they were under pressure from the dictators at the top to perform miracles c) so they set impossible quotas.

Then middle and lower management had to find ways of achieving these impossible targets or, more likely, faking the results. The result was vast piles of long, detailed reports, packed with glowing statistics, which were quoted in all the press and propaganda channels, while the society itself got poorer and poorer, in many places starved, and there were shortages of everything.

In this respect the Gulags were simply a microcosm of wider Soviet society. They were as slipshod, ramshackle, dirty, badly and cruelly run, as the rest of Soviet society.

Quotas The entire system didn’t run on flexible responses to changing needs and situations. Instead bureaucrats at the centre set quotas. You either exceeded your quota and got a reward, reached the quota and were judged satisfactory, or failed the quota and were sacked. Nobody assessed production on the basis of what society actually needed. The central assumption of a communist society is that the Bureaucracy knows what society needs, knows what is good for it. Thus from 1929 onwards Stalin decided that what Russia needed was mass industrialisation. Factories, canals, railways were prioritised; consumer goods, decent accommodation, even food itself, less of a priority.

Because the quotas were so unrealistic, often the only way to fulfil them was to drastically compromise on quality and cut every available corner. Hence to this day Russia’s rotting infrastructure, built in a hurry by people lying and cheating about quality and design and durability, at every opportunity.

The Gulag So this was the mismanaged society of which the Gulags were simply a vicious microcism. At any one moment the population of the Gulags hovered around 2 million. The majority of the population was common criminals – so-called ‘politicals’, the kind of people we in the West used to campaign about, were always in a minority. The kind of people literate enough to write memoirs were in a tiny minority.

From the start Applebaum describes how the system of labour camps began immediately the Bolsheviks took power, as a result of the Red Terror of 1918, but that for most of the 1920s there were clashing priorities. In line with the early idealism of the Revolution many policy makers, bureaucrats and camp commanders thought the camps main purpose was to re-educate ordinary and political criminals in order to turn them into ideal Soviet citizens and rehabilitate them into the Model Society.

It was as late as 1939, when Lavrentia Beria became head of the NKVD, that he for the first time established a thorough-going and consistent policy: the forced labour camps existed to contribute to the Soviet economy, end of. Production output was all that mattered. He instituted systematic reform: Quotas were raised, inspections became more rigorous, sentences were extended, the slave labour day became longer.

Stupid projects The White Sea Canal was the first massive prestige project undertaken with forced camp labour. The Bolsheviks thought it would show the world the dynamism of their new kind of society but instead it demonstrated the absurd stupidity of Soviet aims and methods. Stalin wanted to achieve what previous Russian rulers had dreamed of doing, opening a waterway from the Arctic to the Baltic, thus allowing goods to be transported to from anywhere along the immense Arctic Coast to Archangel, from where it would be dispatched along the new canal to Petersburg, and so into the Baltic and to market in Europe. Applebaum details the ridiculous way the impatient builders began excavations without proper maps, or full architects’ plans, but above all, with slave labourers equipped with no modern tools.

There were no mechanical tools or machines whatsoever, no diggers or drills or trucks, nothing. The entire thing had to be built by hand with tools and equipment built by hand by slave labourers barely surviving on thin soup and sawdust bread in sub-zero temperatures.

Anything up to a quarter of a million prisoners are thought to have died during the canal’s construction. In the event – because of the lack of machine tools and the extreme rockiness of the terrain – a decision was taken early on to limit the depth of the canal to the depth required for river boats but not deep enough for sea ships. This fateful decision ensured that the canal was never successful. It’s still open and carries between ten and forty shallow-draft ships per day, fewer than the number of pleasure steamers on the Thames.

The White Sea Canal was the first of countless similarly grandiose schemes trumpeted with high hopes in the state-controlled press, which relied on slave labour to be built, and which were failures at every level, due to catastrophically bad planning, bad implementation, bad management, bad materials, bad equipment and, above all, the terrible morale of slave labourers who did everything conceivable to cut corners and work as little as possible, simply to survive on the starvation rations which barely kept them alive, let alone fuelled them for hard heavy labour.

The book gives far-reaching insights into this mindset, which has tended to afflict all subsequent ‘socialist’ governments throughout the world, making them hurry to show the world how fabulous their economic system is by building grandiose vanity projects, cities in the middle of nowhere, airports nobody uses, dams which silt up – which plagued the Third World for generations after the Second World War. There is something incredibly childish about it all.

Crime and punishment The intellectuals, especially True Believers in Communism, those who really thought they were building a better society, suffered most after arrest and imprisonment. They still thought life had some kind of meaning, that there is some kind of justice in human life. They wrote long letters to the head of the NKVD, the Politburo, to Stalin himself, arguing that there must have been a mistake.

But there was no mistake. Or rather the mistake was theirs in naively thinking that Soviet society was governed by any rational sense of ‘justice’. As the communist state’s grand plans failed one after another, the paranoid imbeciles at the top concluded it couldn’t possibly be their stupid economic theories which were at fault – the only explanation must be that there were vast networks of spies and saboteurs and ‘right-deviationists’ and Trotskyists undermining the glorious communist achievement at every step.

Thus when people began starving to death in the hundreds of thousands due to the villainously stupid decision to collectivise agriculture in the Ukraine and south Russia in the early 1930s, the centre couldn’t admit this was because the entire idea was cretinously self-defeating, but instead issues ‘quotas’ of saboteurs which local authorities must arrest.

Because The Quota was all that mattered, police and NKVD would just go to the villages concerned and arrest everyone they saw, women and children and babies included, until the quota was fulfilled. Job done. If the famine continued, it was obviously because the quota hadn’t been enough. So arrest more.

This is how the Gulag filled up and explains why it was a) always bursting at the seams, with camp bosses continually complaining to the centre about lack of room, food and facilities b) was always more full of peasants and working class than the small number of ‘politicals’, and c) why so many of them died.

They were rarely ‘extermination camps’ like the Nazi death camps of the same period – people died because of the criminal squalor, dirt, disease, lack of food or water or medical facilities. Over and over again Applebaum quotes prisoners’ descriptions of 40 people packed into rooms designed for five, of nowhere to sleep, no water except the snow which you had to melt yourself, no mugs or plates so water had to be scooped up in bark or rags, no spoons to eat the watery soup filled with rotten vegetables. Cannibalism – which became widespread in the Ukraine famine of 1933 – was also not unknown in the camps.

Over and again, trainloads of prisoners arrived in locations ordained to become camps to find nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Hundreds of thousands of city dwellers were dumped in frozen fields or bare tundra. They had to excavate holes in the ground with their bare hands and huddle together for warmth for the first few weeks. Immediately, the weak started dying. Only the strong survived the weeks necessary to chop down trees and assemble basic shelters from logs, and so on.

It is a picture of unrelieved squalor, poverty, stupidity, cruelty, degradation and inhumanity.

The purges By the mid-1930s Stalin felt secure enough in his control of the Soviet state to turn on his enemies and anyone from the early days of the Bolshevik party. It began with targeted arrests, torture, execution or dispatch to the camps, but became a wave of persecution and just kept on growing throughout 1937 and 1938. This was the era of the Show Trials which stunned the world and much of the Soviet population, seeing heroes of the Revolution stand up in court and confess to the most absurd crimes (a process described in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon).

However, although this wave of arrests is famous in the West, it’s partly because it affected high-profile people and intellectuals and, as Applebaum shows, these always made up a tiny fraction of the Gulag population. In 1938 it was estimated that only 1.1% of prisoners had a higher education. Half had only a primary school education, about a third were semi-literate (p.270).

And contrary to common belief, it wasn’t during this period, in the 1930s, that the Gulag Archipelago hit maximum size. That happened after the war – 1952 appears to have been the peak year, with a prison population of some 4 million.

Women and children Anyone with a heart will find it difficult to carry on reading after the chapter describing the plight of women and their children in the camps. It goes without saying that rape, sometimes gang rape, was a permanent threat to all female prisoners. Applebaum describes how initially idealistic women soon had to adapt to life among hardened criminals, quickly becoming mistress or moll to some hard man. There’s a particularly grim account of how a sweet, pretty blonde turned into, first a mistress, and then herself rose through unflinching cruelty to become a powerful camp boss.

The hardest stories are the countless times new-born babies were separated from their mothers as soon as they’d been weaned – not only that but were then indoctrinated in state-run nurseries into believing their mothers were ‘enemies of the people’ so that, even if the mothers ever managed to track down their children, it was to find Party zealots who refused to acknowledge or talk to them.

How could a nation, how could a people, how could so many people behave with such utter heartlessness?

Such were new Soviet Man and Woman, products of a system devised to bring heartless cruelty to a peak of perfection.

Crime Paradoxically, the group which thrived most in the Gulag was the really hardened criminals. There was, and still is, an elaborate hierarchy of Russian criminals. At the top sit the vor v zakone (literally ‘thieves-in-law), the toughest of the tough, convicted multiple offenders, who lived by a very strict code of honour, first rule of which was ‘Never co-operate with the authorities’.

Applebaum’s section about these super-hard criminals is fascinating, as all depictions of criminal life are, not least for the light it sheds on post-communist Russia where large numbers of hardened criminals moved into the vacuum created by the fall of communism, and remain there to this day.

Orphans There’s also some discussion of the huge number of orphans which were produced by the State breaking up millions of families during the 1920s and 1930s. These homeless kids took to street life, stealing, pimping, dealing drugs, became the petty criminals who graduated into Russia’s big criminal underclass. At numerous points the authorities realised the problems this was causing and tried out various policies to abolish it. Too late.

I’ve been reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant thrillers about communist and post-communist Russia featuring tough guy investigator Arkady Renko, and the later ones give quite a lot of prominence to a street kid he picks up and tries to give a decent home, named Zhenya. The novel Three Stations, in particular, introduces us to the dangerous gangs of street kids who Zhenya associates with and/or avoids. It was a revelation to learn that this problem – Russian cities thronged with gangs of criminal homeless kids – is as old as the Revolution, and was partly caused by it.

How many

A best guess is that some 18 million Soviet citizens passed through the Gulag system between 1929 and 1953. Over 4 million German and other nation prisoners of war were held in camps during and for some time after the Second World War. An additional 700,000 Soviet citizens, many Red Army soldiers returning from incarceration in Germany, were held in so-called ‘filtration camps’. And a huge number of citizens underwent internal exile, were removed to distant lands, though not kept in official gulags: for example, over 2 million kulaks were sent into internal exile in the early 1930s alone. The best estimate is that there were around 6 million special exiles.

Added up, the total number of forced labourers during the history of the gulags is around 28 million.

Conclusions

Applebaum’s book is not only extraordinarily thorough, deeply researched and beautifully written, but it organises its subject matter with immaculate clarity and logic.

The division of the book into three parts – pre-war, life in the camps, post-war – works perfectly, as the social and political and economic circumstances of each era differed so much, particularly in part three when the death of Stalin (in 1953) prompted a quick but chaotic ‘thaw’ in the administration of Soviet ‘justice’ and the swift release of hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

She is excellent at explaining the various methodological issues which confront the historian of this subject e.g. central and local archives contain thousands of official statistics and inspectors’ reports about the hundreds and hundreds of camps, but almost all of them contain substantial fictions and exaggerations – no numbers anywhere, about anything, from the Soviet period can be trusted.

She thoroughly explains the problem of simply trying to define the gulags, since camps came into existence for ad hoc project purposes, or changed function from forced labour camps to normal prisons, and back again, and so on.

Similarly, there are big problems defining the different categories of inmate – political, criminal, foreign – which the Soviet authorities themselves changed and redefined. And that’s before the Second World War, when the entire picture was further confused by the influx of huge numbers of prisoners of war, by the German seizure of most of European Russia and the collapse of production which led – once again – to widespread famine. And then, after the war, the forced relocations of entire nations moved at Stalin’s whim thousands of miles from their homelands, like the Crimean Tartars or the Chechens.

It is an epic story, involving not just every stratum of Russian society but victims from the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, along with entire populations of Crimean Tartars, Chechens and so on.

Stepping back it is like watching a huge ink blot spread over the map of the world from Petersburg to Moscow and all European Russia, then slowly across the Asian landmass and, after the Second War, well into Europe and then bursting into the huge area of China, before breaking out in various Third World countries across Africa, Asia and South America. What a global disaster!

The downside of the book is having to nerve yourself to read so many horror stories, whether at national local or individual level, the mental damage caused by immersing yourself in cruelty and heartlessness and suffering and death on a Biblical scale.

The upside is the astonishing clarity with which Applebaum defines the issues, presents the evidence, makes her decisions, divides the subject logically and then describes it in prose of inspirational clarity and intelligence. The book itself is a triumph of civilisation and intelligence over the crude barbarity of the subject matter.

In the final section Applebaum points out the effect on contemporary Russia of never facing up to the enormous crimes and injustices of the Soviet past. Briefly aired in the 1990s it has now been resolutely forgotten, with the result that some of the political figures involved in the final stages of the prison system in the 1970s and 1980s continued to hold positions of power and were never prosecuted. The FSB, successor to the KGB, still has rights to intercept mail and phone calls. And ideas of free speech and freedom of the press continue to be much more limited in Russia than in the West (and appear to deteriorate with every passing year).

Lots of cogent reasons why, as I said at the top, the book makes me fear and dislike Russia even more than I already did. It’s 15 years since Gulag was published. Political and social conditions under Vladimir Putin’s semi-permanent rule have not improved. I wonder if we will end up going to war with Russia.

Applebaum quotes the Russian philosopher Pyotr Chadev, who returned to St Petersburg from the West in 1836 and wrote an essay which included the sentence:

Contrary to the laws of the humanity Russia moves only in the direction of her own enslavement and the enslavement of all neighbouring peoples.

Tsar Nicholas I had Chadev placed under house arrest and word put around that he was insane. Plus ca change…

Summary

This is a really excellent history book, one which – as they say – everyone should read. Or, maybe more realistically, should be compulsory reading to anyone harbouring nostalgia for communism as a form of government or economic theory.

Or – as she says in her conclusion – should be compulsory reading for all those who are beginning to think that the Cold War was a futile waste of time.

Her book goes a long way to justifying the description of the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. In the pampered West plenty of academic may poo-poo that idea – but ask the Czechs, the Poles, the East Germans, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Estonians, Latvians, the Lithuanians, or the Crimeans or the Chechens how much they enjoyed living under Soviet rule.

Map


Related links

Related reviews

History

Exhibitions

Camp memoirs

Fiction

Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith (2013)

‘All I know is that we don’t have a government anymore, just thieves.’ (p.269)

Joseph

Joseph cycles out to the beach. He’s a cool, well-paid freelance translator. The current job has gone well and he’s cycled here to Kaliningrad strand on his priceless bicycle to take the sea air and feel the sand between his toes. Onto the empty beach rolls an odd-looking van, a butcher’s van with a model pig on the top. A thug gets out, comes over and starts talking to Joseph, then hassling him. Finally, he bundles him into the back of his van and the gulls flying overhead hear a single shot.

Moscow

Senior Investigator Arkady Renko and Detective Sergeant Victor Orlov attend the funeral of a Moscow gangster, Grisha Grigorenko, bantering with his thuggish son Alexi, observing the other mafia bosses in attendance – ‘Ape’ Beledon, Abdul Khan the ‘rap artist’, Isaac and Valentina Shagelman – before the hoods go off for a wake aboard the old crook’s luxury yacht, the Natalya Gocharova, moored in the Moscow river.

Renko and Orlov are distracted by a noisy demonstration marching by. It’s the readers and fans of the ‘fearless’ investigative journalist, Tatiana Petrovna, who recently fell to her death from her 6th floor apartment in Moscow. They’re protesting at the lack of investigation of her death and at the suspicious way her body has gone missing from the morgue.

Arkady joins the protest marchers, noting the presence of Tatiana’s editor Sergei Obolensky, the fashionable poet Maxim Dal, and other intelligentsia, among the crowd. Arkady also spots his occasional bed partner, Anya Rudenko, also a journalist, who lives in the same apartment block as him. Barely have the rag-tag marchers arrived outside Tatiana’s apartment building than a gang of skinheads attack them with steel-capped boots and metal pipes.

When the police turn up they are – as so often in these Arkady novels – much more scary than the criminals and start attacking the protesters. Arkady had been knocked to the floor by some skinheads, and was taking a serious kicking when the militia arrived. He manages to fight his way back to his feet, and then make his identity known to the militia, and tries to protect Anya from arrest.

When Arkady makes it away from the scene he discovers he has a black eye and cracked ribs, in fact one of his ribs has punctured a lung. Several days of bed rest are prescribed, with a pipe inserted in his chest which will help reinflate the lung.

He is tended by Dr Korsakova, the sardonic doctor who nursed him through being shot in the head in the Stalin’s Ghost, with much entertaining banter on both sides. She points out that, according to X-rays, shell fragments seem to be moving round inside his brain. They could rupture at any moment. ‘Might as well smoke, then’, says Arkady, with typical bloody-mindedness.

Arkady ignores the medical advice and starts making enquiries about the ‘suicide’. He visits Tatiana’s flat in a soon-to-be-demolished block, and finds it has been ransacked. He visits Svetlana, the young woman Tatiana took off the streets and fixed up in the flat opposite her, along with her six cats. He visits Tatiana’s editor, Obolensky, who says they’d both seen a TV report about a body washed up on the shore off Kaliningrad, and Tatiana had set off to find out more. Nobody had identified the short skinny corpse (the corpse of Joseph who we met in the opening chapter), but Tatiana had tracked down the kids who found the body on the beach and discovered that they had found Joseph’s notebooks. She bought themoff the kids and found they were full of notes made in an eccentric and idiosyncratic style, using personalised hieroglyphs and symbols.

In the usual style of the Renko books, the plot ramifies out into a number of threads:

  • The poet Maxim Dal is unusually interested in Tatiana because, he claims, they had an affair years earlier.
  • Arkady is surprised to come across his own, admittedly occasional, girlfriend, Anya, hanging out with Alexi, the crime boss’s son (more or less what happened in Stalin’s Ghost, when Arkady’s girlfriend deserted him for the bad guy in that novel).
  • Arkady visits Professor Kunin at Moscow University (p.89), an expert on language and ciphers, whose lungs are ruined and so who drags around an oxygen tank and breathing tube. Some interesting light is shed on translators’ codes in general, but Kunin can’t decipher these ones.

Zhenya

Arkady examines the notebook carefully and notes the recurrence of bicycle pictures and cats. When he rings them, the authorities in Kaliningrad, namely one Lieutenant Stasov, are monumentally unhelpful (hiding something? or just standard Russian obstructiveness?).

Zhenya, the street kid we first met aged 8 in Wolves Eat Dogs, is now a shabby-looking 17-year-old and appals Arkady by announcing he wants to join the army. (This gives Cruz Smith the opportunity to refer to the terrible ‘hazing’ ie systematic cruelty, to which new recruits are routinely subjected, and so he refuses to sign the paper allowing him to enlist.) But Zhenya complicates the plot by breaking into Arkady’s apartment and stealing the notebook. He’ll only give it back if Arkady signs the form.

Panther bicycles

Arkady has a beer at a genuine ‘Irish’ bar where the bartender, unexpectedly, turns out to be an expert on bicycles. He makes the connection between the bike frames doodled in the notebook and the images of cats. The latter must, in fact, be panthers. And Panther is a range of hand-built and extremely expensive bicycles made in Italy by a firm named Bicicletta Ercolo (p.109). So Arkady tracks down the firm’s phone number and makes some long distance phone calls to the owner of the firm in Italy.

These calls, with their confusions and misunderstandings, are partly played for laughs, but the owner eventually comes up with the name of a purchaser from Russia who more or less fits the corpse’s description – one Joseph Bonnafos (p.154).

Bad memories

Interleaved through the novel are Arkady’s memories of his brutal Red Army general father – especially the time the General nearly shot Arkady when the boy sneaked into his study and hid behind the thick curtains. Eventually his father killed himself (as his mother had, in the events traumatically described in Wolves Eat Dogs).

Arkady also remembers the events surrounding the tragic and futile death of his wife, Irina, mistakenly given an injection of penicillin to which she was allergic.

In this melancholy vein Arkady finds himself drawn to listening, in the haunted early hours, to the trove of tapes he found scattered over Tatiana’s floor. They are records of her investigations and amount to a summary of recent Russian scandals, which Tatiana either attended or investigated:

You can see why the authorities wanted her shut up. But what was her involvement with organised crime? To find out, Arkady goes the rounds of some of the gang leaders or godfathers he and Victor noted at Grisha’s funeral, notable Abdul Khan, ‘Ape’ Beledon, Valentina Shagelman.

In the middle of the night Arkady’s car alarm goes off and when he trudges down to the garage, he is knocked unconscious. Coming to, he finds himself on a barge on the river, being tortured by Alexi Grigorenko who, to his surprise, wants to find out what Arkady knows about Kaliningrad and to get him to hand over the notebook.

Alexi’s eyes were slightly hooded. Hands quick and delicate as a croupier’s. Under his jacket the hitch of a gun. (p.119)

Just as Arkady’s wondering whether he’ll die, Alexi makes a slip which allows Arkady to grab his arm, pull him down, dislocate his shoulder and punch him quite a few times in the face before walking free, in the casual insouciant manner we’ve become accustomed to.

Arkady learns from his friend, Willy the pathologist, that Tatiana’s body has gone from ‘missing’ to ‘found and cremated’ in one fell swoop. Nothing to see but ashes. Apparently, her sister, Ludmila, identified the body over the phone using photographs faxed to her. The sister lives in Kaliningrad. Aha.

Kaliningrad

As in Stalin’s Ghost a lot of the plot strands point towards a specific location outside Moscow, thus giving the author an opportunity to send the ostensibly Moscow-based investigator to a new and interesting location. In Stalin’s Ghost it was the town of Tver, scene of major battles in the Second World War. Here it is Kaliningrad, where Arkady flies to be met by the poet Dal, in his swanky ZIL, the Russian version of a limousine.

Dal claims he had to be in Kaliningrad anyway to promote some Moscow-to-Kaliningrad rally. He tells Arkady he wants to know more about Tatiana’s fate because he’s up for a sizeable poetry prize from the United States ($50,000) and, if her death turns out to be murder, the fact of his old relationship with her might jeopardise the award. They sound like excuses to Renko.

Arkady and Maxim go to visit the sister, who doesn’t even let them into the house but wears dark glasses and yells out the window. She is more concerned about her vegetables than her dead sister. Yes, she identified her sister’s body from the photos she was sent, what does she care? ‘Now please leave.’

This isn’t the result Arkady spent the time and money flying here to find out to get. Back at Maxim’s flat the poet gets hopelessly drunk. Arkady carries him to his bed and sleeps on the couch.

Moscow Meanwhile, back in Moscow, Zhenya takes part in a ‘Blitz’ chess championship among university students and finds himself losing to an attractive red-head named Lotte, the first time he’s lost a game of chess in years. Intrigued, he lets her take him home to meet her grandfather, who made a career painting nothing but portraits of Stalin back in the day.

Then Zhenya takes Lotte to Arkady’s empty apartment, the only place he has to go. They’re sharing a beer and playing a game of chess when Alexi walks in with a gun and a big bruise under his eye (where Arkady hit him). Alexi threatens Lotte and Zhenya with the gun, demanding to know where the notebook is. Zhenya feigns ignorance and angrily says he’s got hundreds of notebooks of chess games, but not the notebook Alexi wants. Alexi leaves, pissed off. But Zhenya does have the notebook. It was lying on the coffee table throughout the whole confrontation.

Pig man and amber

Kaliningrad Arkady insists Maxim drives him out to the sandy spit where Joseph’s body was found. Apparently, this is where Tatiana bought the notebook from the children. They see a few children in the sea, playing with rakes except Maxim explains they’re actually raking for amber, which they can sell for a good price. The butcher’s van with a model pig atop it, which we met in the first chapter, turns up and the driver watches the kids for a while. Ominous.

On the drive back from the spit, Maxim takes a detour to an open pit mine and tells Arkady that Kaliningrad produces 90% of the world’s amber. Until recently the mafiosi Grisha Grigorenko owned the whole operation. Until someone shot him in the head, that is. Grisha’s front company was named Curonian Amber, the Curonian Spit being the long, thin, curved sand-dune spit that separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea coast.

So it looks more than ever as if the murder of Joseph the interpreter, the suicide of Tatiana the journalist, and the clumsy threats by Grisha Grigorenko, the gangster’s son, are somehow linked – and have something to do with control of Kaliningrad’s amber.

Maxim then takes Arkady on a car tour of the city, taking in Kant’s tomb and also the mock old town. It is going to be heavily invested in, apparently. Money is flooding into the area. They’re going to open casinos. Whoever owns it will make a fortune. So that explains the gangland connection…

Just as they arrive at the quaint quayside, a 4×4 looms out of nowhere, rams the ZIL to a standstill and two heavies get out with Uzis, which they proceed to empty into the side of Maxim’s car. But Maxim’s car is an old Kremlin ZIL, completely armour plated and, when Maxim goes to ram the other car, it reverses and takes off. Angry, Arkady extracts from Maxim the fact that he promised to help Alexi, and promised to be parked down at the quay at this time. Why? Because he was scared. Because Alexi threatened to kill him.

Moscow Meanwhile, back in Moscow, Alexi returns to Arkady’s flat to catch Zhenya and Lotte red-handed, trying to decode the notebook. They have barely made any sort of start but Alexi threatens that he’ll be back in 10 hours and, if they haven’t decoded it, he will torture Lotte. He takes the kids’ mobile phones. He cuts the cable of the apartment’s phone. He stations one of his men on the door with a gun.

Kaliningrad Back in Kaliningrad, Arkady returns to the spit of land and finds one of the boys who was playing there. He is called Vovo. He and his sister saw the pig man murder Joseph, then search through his clothes looking for something, before throwing them away. When he’d gone, the kids found the notebook and a card with a phone number scribbled on it. When they rang it, Tatiana answered, and told them to keep the notebook till she arrived and could pay them $50. Which is what happened. And so she passed it on to her editor for safekeeping. And he gave it to Arakdy. And then Zhenya stole it. And now Alexi is threatening to torture Lotte unless she and Zhenya decipher it.

A twist

Leaving a forlorn and broken Maxim, Arkady hires his own car and drives back to Ludmila’s cottage. Now she is not wearing dark glasses and her little pug dog bounces out the front door. Ludmila says, ‘So you’re back.’ Arkady says, ‘And you are Tatiana.’ And she admits it, yes. Her sister, almost identical to look at, was visiting her in Moscow. Someone lay in wait and bundled her over the balcony rail. Max rang her at the magazine to tell her someone had murdered her sister thinking it was her, came to pick her up, and they drove through the night to Kaliningrad where they agreed Tatiana’s best hope of surviving was to impersonate the sister.

Arkady understand. ‘Will she be safe here?’ she asks Arkady. ‘No’, he replies. Especially when he points out that there’s an unmarked police car parked opposite her cottage, keeping an eye on her.

So they devise a scam. Arkady takes her dog for a walk past the car and rolls its toy ball under the car. The cop in it turns out to be the obstructive Lieutenant Stasov, who yells at him to piss off, while Arkady makes a big song and dance about getting the ball back for his dog. By the time this noisy charade has been played out, Tatiana has slipped out of the side door and mingled with the passing pedestrians.

Moscow Back in Moscow, the ten hours Alexi gave Lotte and Zheny to decipher toe notebooks are up, and the man guarding the door of Arkady’s apartment goes to push it open to shoot Zhenya and Lotte, to the latters’ horror. But there are the sounds of a scuffle, and the door eventually opens to reveal stalwart old Victor banging the hood’s head against the wall, before throwing him down the stairs. Hooray! Lotte and Zhenya are saved!

Victor handcuffs the hood – named Fedorov – and allows Zhenya to menace him with Arkady’s pistol, till he admits that Alexi is in Kaliningrad, along with the heads of the mafia families we met at his dad’s funeral. But why?

Kaliningrad Back in Kaliningrad, Arkady meets up with Tatiana at a bicycle shop and they sign up to one of the all-day, all-night bicycle outings he’d seen advertised. Soon they are anonymous among a pack of cyclists leaving the city. That night they camp in the countryside, sing songs round a campfire, and are surprised to watch a small orgy get underway among the cyclists. Takes all sorts. They sleep chastely in a tent till dawn, then cycle off along the coast to Tatiana’s childhood seaside house, full of family memories.

Here Tatiana explains that the government of crooks, dedicated to embezzling vast amounts for the state, has made a massive cock-up with its latest nuclear submarine, which cost hundreds of billions of rubles but is still not seaworthy.

The meeting of gangsters seems to be about a plan to get the submarine refurbished and cream off vast profits from the project. Joseph had been a translator at an initial meeting of those involved in the conspiracy, Tatiana had heard of him through her multiple contacts, and was going to ask Joseph to explain the details, but he was killed before he could meet her.

Tatiana explains that all the cases of corruption she’s dealt with over the past decades build to a climax with this one. It’s the lynch pin to the entire Russian system of official corruption – which is why everyone wants it.

Suddenly a searchlight cuts through the window of the cottage. It’s Alexi in a sleek, designer speedboat. He shouts threats through a loudhailer. He asks Tatiana if she wants to know what happened to her sister, Arkady if he wants to know what happened to Zhenya (implying he’s killed him). Tatiana, bravely or foolishly, walks into the open doorway and Alexi fires wildly at her, missing, but sending splinters pinging, then swings the boat around and roars away. Arkady was winged by some of the splinters. Tatiana cleans and dresses the wound, their hands touch, they kiss, they make love.

‘Afterward was an overused word, Arkady thought. It meant so much. A shifting of planets. A million years. A new sea. (p.276)

Now lovers, the couple go on the run, cycling up the coast in the dark. They encounter armed security guards who turn a searchlight on them and fire with automatics; but in the fog, they escape amid a herd of elk and cycle back to the resort town of Zeleogradsk and try to blend in as tourists.

From an internet cafe, they skype with Zhenya, Lotte and Victor in Arkady’s flat and both groups share the information they’ve discovered – Zhenya confirming the interpretation that the notebook was the record of conference, various parties spoke, it’s something to do with the sea, maybe a submarine, that the final meeting will be aboard the luxury yacht, the Natalya Gocharova, which has moored at Kaliningrad.

So getting out to the yacht and intervening in the meeting now becomes the plan.

The Natalya Gocharovas

In an odd scene Maxim, Arkady and Tatiana argue over which of them will be wired for sound and go out to the yacht, and who will stay in the flat recording whatever happens, onto a tape recorder.

In the event, Maxim insists that he goes instead of Tatiana, insisting on steering a dinghy out to the yacht moored in the harbour, on the basis that he’s a local and knows the seaways. It’s a very spooky and atmospheric trip…

But when they get there, the Natalya Gocharova is dark and unpopulated. What’s going on? Maxim turns nasty and claims the whole thing is a set-up so that Arkady could get him alone and kill him. Ridiculous, but the old drunk pulls out a pistol and is about to shoot Arkady when the latter’s mobile phone rings. It is Zhenya – he has somehow found out that there are two Natalya Gocharovas – the other one is an oil tanker, also moored in the harbour.

So Maxim grugingly puts his gun away and they putter on into the industrial section of the port, and discover that the other Natalya Gocharova is a ‘stubby coastal tanker’. Maxim and Arkady chunter up to it and ascend the rusty ladder to find a champagne party taking place. Overseeing it is old ‘Ape’ Beledon, along with Abdul the ‘rap artist’, Isaac and Valentina Shagelman, Alexi, along with a number of naval officers and two Chinese representatives from the Red Dawn shipyard.

There is a tense stand-off in which Arkady gets ‘Ape’ to confess details of the scam – the Russian government will sub-contract the refurbishment of the nuclear submarine to a Chinese shipyard, at a cost of billions of rubles (hence the presence of the Chinese delegates). But Russian crooks will work with corrupt government officials, going as high as the Kremlin, to cream half the sum into private pockets. It is a vast corruption conspiracy and explains the murders and assassinations which have surrounded it.

Arkady, initially outnumbered, does the classic thing of sowing disunity among his foes by pointing out:

a) that it was ‘Ape’s own sons who shot up the ZIL he and Maxim were in – not at Ape’s bidding, so someone else must have ordered them, probably Alexi – ‘aren’t you even in control of your own sons?’
b) that whoever killed someone as savvy as Grisha, must have been very close to him to get away with it – who else but his nearest and dearest son, Alexi?

At this very tense moment, Tatiana appears on deck, having rowed out to the tanker, and cries out to Alexi that he killed her sister.

She pulls a gun and fires on him but it jams and Alexi fires back at her. Maxim steps into the path of the bullet and is shot in the shoulder. ‘Ape’ – now convinced that Alexi shot his own father and suborned his, ‘Ape’s, sons, – shoots Alexi in the face, then twice in the back as he lies on deck. The naval officers have disappeared. The Chinese are long gone. ‘Ape’ suavely places the pistol in Maxim’s hands.

‘Congratulations. By the evidence you have just shot your first man.’ (p.312)

Being a reasonably civilised mafiosi – and realising there’s nothing to be gained by harming them – ‘Ape’ lets Arkady and Tatiana and Maxim go back to their boat and leave.

Death of the pig man

Now Arkady and Tatiana are free to share idyllic days in her family cabin by the sea. The shifting dunes, the sound of the waves breaking, the salt in the air – are all painted by Cruz Smith with characteristic prose poetry.

But Arkady wakes one night to hear footsteps prowling. It is the pig man, the psycho who killed Joseph in the opening scene. So Arkady is relieved when Tatiana announces that her editor, Obolensky, has commissioned her to write a long piece about Kremlin corruption, with the Natalya Gocharova story as its centrepiece. She has to go to Moscow to research and write it.

Off she goes and Arkady prepares for a shootout with the pig man. He rummages around in Tatiana’s father’s old tool shed and finds lots of cabling. He wraps this round himself and slips a poncho over. That night the pig van with the glowing model of a pig on top comes rumbling over the dunes. It parks and the pig man throws the three children Arkady met weeks ago, onto the sand, trussed and tied up. He threatens to shoot them unless Arkady shows himself. Arkady stands and walks towards piggy who, after some insults, shoots him. Arkady is knocked backwards but rises and walks forward. Pig man shoots again, and again Arkady staggers but carries on walking (as in a thousand movies), finally raising Tatiana’s little peashooter of a pistol and killing pig man at almost point blank range.

All threats are over.

Cleaning the bike

With the kids’ help Arkady and Tatiana find the lost Pantera bicycle. They take it back to Arkady’s flat in Moscow, strip it down and rebuild it. Zhenya gets involved. Tatiana is off collecting international prizes for journalism. Lotte, Zhenya’s ‘friend’, is playing at an international chess tournament in Cairo. His ex, Anya, is happily covering fashion. Maxim has recovered and has published a new poem.

All loose ends are tidied up and everyone is happy. Thus ends the 8th and most recent Arkady Renko novel.

Having read all eight, my favourites are Polar Star and Wolves Eat Dogs because their settings give full rein to Cruz Smith’s spectacular abilities as a prose poet. But all of them are immensely enjoyable and rewarding reads.


Credit

Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith was published by Simon and Schuster in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Simon and Schuster paperback edition.

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’.

Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith (2010)

She crossed the road to look at the bus shelter. It had been built during a period of optimism, and although the pain had faded and holes had been mysteriously punched through the wall, Maya could still make out the faint outline of a rocket ship lifting off the ground, aspiring to more. The bus route had been closed for years. The shelter was mainly used now as a pissoir and message centre: GO FUCK YOURSELF, I FUCKED YOUR MOTHER, HEIL HITLER, OLEG SUCKS COCK.(p.118)

Three Stations is the nickname Muscovites give to Komsomol Square because of the proximity of three mainline railway stations, as well as the intersection of two metro lines and ten lanes of traffic, ‘a Circus Maximus with cars’ (p.12). Into its vortex are swept the worst scum of Moscow.

Men with vague intentions idled in small groups, beers in hand, watching prostitutes grind by. The women walked with a predatory eye and looked as likely to eat their clients as have sex with them. (p.13)

This is the shortest (277 pages) and most Muscovite of the Arkady Renko novels, as it uses its characters and plot to explore the dingy surrounds, the violent underworld, and the moneyed corruption of Arkady’s home town. Its 36 chapters are short and punchy, making it feel fast-moving and edgy.

Arkady

Senior Moscow crime investigator Arkady Renko is in deep poo with his boss, prosecutor Zurin, despite solving the mystery of ‘Stalin’s ghost’ and nailing two colleagues who turned out to be murderers in the previous novel, Stalin’s Ghost.

Zurin has forbidden him to work on any case. Typically, Arkady gets round this ban by simply tagging along with his assistant, the trying-to-give-up-alcohol detective Viktor Orlov. The novel opens with the pair standing over the body of a murdered prostitute in a shabby trailer near the three Stations. She seems to have been poisoned then her skirt hitched up around her waist and her legs carefully arranged so one ankle is touching the other heel. Why?

They follow a power cable from the one naked bulb in the trailer, through rubbish outside, to the nearest militia office: i.e. the police appear to have been pimping her out. This comes as no surprise since successive Renko novels have taught us that Russian police are often worse than the criminals they supposedly pursue; someone who’s been burgled often finds the militia removing any valuables the burglars missed.

Arkady names the corpse ‘Olga’ and gets an old schoolfriend, fat Willi Pazenko, to do an autopsy. She was given knock-out pills then poisoned with ether, which has remained in her asphyxiated lungs.

Zhenya

For the last couple of novels Arkady’s life has been enlivened by the occasional presence of Zhenya, a street kid who flops in his apartment sometimes, but also goes missing for stretches. Zhenya is a larger presence in this book than usual, as we see him fitting in with the hundreds if not thousands of street kids who infest the squalid Three Stations area. Cruz Smith repeats the stunning fact, first mentioned in Stalin’s Ghost, that there are anything up to 50,000 children living wild on the streets of Moscow, having run away from the traditional Russian, alcoholic, abusive home, and who have contributed to an epidemic of petty crime, mugging, arson and vandalism (p.102).

Zhenya differs from most of the kids in that he is a chess genius, rarely seen nott clutching his precious board. In the previous novel we learn that his father, Osip Lysenko, spotted his talent from an early age and used him to lure unwary passengers on trains or in waiting rooms into chess games which Zhenya was briefed to lose until the gull could be persuaded to bet big money on a game – at which point Zhenya wiped the floor with him. If Zhenya made any mistakes, let alone lost, his father beat him. That’s why he ran away when he was about 8 and Arkady first met him at one of Moscow’s many refuges for children.

Zhenya is 15 now and playing chess for money is the only life skill he has. Thus, throughout the novel there are scenes where he persuades unwary travellers between the three stations to bet on a match with him, with variable results, including violence.

Maya

The novel actually opens by introducing us to a simple-minded young woman, Maya Pospelova, aged 16. She is on a train to Moscow with her very small baby, Katya. When she goes outside the carriage to breast feed it she is confronted by a drunken soldier who threatens her for a blowjob. She is rescued by a sweet old lady, calling herself Auntie Lenya, who smacks the soldier and sends him off, before helping Maya back to her seat, giving her some of Auntie Lenya’s nice tea etc, generally fussing over her and telling her to get some rest while she looks after the baby.

When Maya wakes up the train is in Moscow station and Auntie Lenya and the baby are gone. Distraught, she searches all over the train, asks the guard, the driver, any station official she can find, and then the police. Nada. Nothing.

It is now that she is spotted by Zhenya who gets talking to her. He takes pity on her and takes her back to his secret base, a luxury casino near the station, named after Peter the Great, which has recently been closed down and mothballed, but which Zhenya is the only one to have figured out how to break into. Thus he – and she, now – have free run of a big, eerily empty building, giving Cruz Smith scope for some typically atmospheric descriptions.

Eva

Fans of the previous books in the series will be impatient to find out what happened to Dr Eva Kazka, the doctor Arkady hooked up with two novels previously, and who was – shockingly and unexpectedly – seriously wounded in a knife attack in the very last pages of the previous novel, Stalin’s Ghost.

We have to wait until page 70 before she’s even mentioned whereupon we find out, rather disappointingly, that she recovered from her injuries, that their relationship staggered on a bit, and then she left him. She simply declared she didn’t want to wait around for him to be executed by criminals; she didn’t want to be the grieving widow at the graveside. Boom. She’s out of his life. Shame, She was a sparky, recalcitrant element in the novels.

The Nijinsky Fair

At the scene of Olga’s death, Arkady found an invitation to a glitzy, high society charity event called the Nijinsky Fair, so he uses it to go along. He looks woefully out of place, a skinny, lank, badly-dressed cop trying to mingle with super-rich mafia types and skinny supermodels in a huge ballroom festooned with luxury brands, flashing lights, waiters serving champagne cocktails and so on. Arkady catches sight himself in a room full of mirrors.

With so many mirrors reflecting each other, he seemed to share the room with multiple desperate men with lank hair and eyes deep as drains, the sort of figure who might wander the streets on a rainy night and cause people to roll up their car windows and jump the traffic light. (p.126)

Not, in other words, a desperately reassuring presence. To his surprise he bumps into Anya Rudikova, his new neighbour in his apartment building, a rather self-dramatising journalist. She is drinking with Sasha Vaksberg, a characteristically semi-criminal New Russian multi-millionaire who was running a set of casinos among other things, until ‘our friend in the Kremlin’ decided to cut the oligarchs down to size and closed them all down. His casinos include the Peter the Great casino in Three Stations, which we have seen Zhenya making his hideout. Aha. The reader has the familiar sensation of threads and storylines beginning to pull together.

This party is actually a charity event, given by nice Mr Vaksberg to raise money for the very street kids we’ve seen as we follow Maya and Zhenya. It leads up to a big stage show, part of which features ballet dancers, not actually dancing but adopting the numbered postures and positions they use in training. For some reason number 4 is missing, so Vaksberg surprises us all by running down onto the stage and nimbly adopting the posture himself. Laughter from his super-rich audience. More cocktails. Gaiety as a trapeze artist pulls cunning stunts and then there is another tableau, this time of the dwarfs from Snow White. And so the show rambles on while Arkady watches, dazed by all the bling on display.

The trapeze arsonist

Poking around, as is his habit, Arkady finds himself backstage and climbs to the gallery to look down on the stage. Here he finds the trapeze artist who was part of the show, crouched on his almost invisible wire. As Arkady asks him questions, the artist dementedly lights matches for each question and drops them down into the flies below. He could easily start a fire which would cause mayhem in the club, is he mad? Scratch, another match dropped. Arkady makes his excuses and leaves…

Maya the child prostitute

We get an incredibly bleak flashback of Maya’s childhood in some God-forsaken dump miles from Moscow and civilisation, working from as early as she can remember, since before puberty, as a child prostitute in a room decorated as a little girl’s room, all in pink complete with teddy bears.

She remembers all the fat, middle-aged clients who want to fuck Daddy’s little girl but end up on the side of the bed crying. Matti, her Finnish pimp, tells her she’s been sold into prostitution by her parents, presumably to buy more vodka, that noble drink for, as Arkady points out, ‘Four out of every five violent crimes involved vodka’ (p.20).

It is a portrait of a society in complete moral and social collapse.

‘Girls flock to Moscow with romantic ambitions of being models or dancers and Moscow turns them into escorts and whores. We wax them and pluck them and inflate their breasts like balloons. In short, we turn them into freaks of beauty.’ (p.138)

Eventually, Maya becomes pregnant, which causes trouble with the brothel’s owners who make Matti look like Father Christmas. Soon as she’s had the baby, two of the ‘Catchers’, as they’re known, come to visit, intending to take Maya away and make an example of her as they have of previous girls who in any way rebelled – burn her face off with acid or break every bone in her body, that kind of thing. Foolishly, they let her sit in the derelict bus shelter out front of the brothel while they crank up with some of Matti’s vodka.

Unexpectedly, an Army bus is passing from the nearby barracks and to everyone’s surprise stops when Maya sticks her hand out. She quickly boards to the cheers of the soldiers and although the Catchers come running out brandishing pistols, the bus has pulled off and Maya is safe. It drops her at the local train station and she uses all her pitiful savings to buy a train ticket to Moscow. It was on this journey that the kindly old lady stole her baby.

Shootout on the freeway

Back in the present, Vaksberg offers Arkady and Anya a lift home in his huge armour-plated, bullet-proof Mercedes. As it starts to rain, Vaksberg sits snugly inside patting the Adidas bag filled with the takings from the charity event, bitterly complaining how ‘the judo master in the Kremlin’ (p.138) ie Putin, has screwed the oligarchs.

The car drives up onto a stretch of freeway flyover which was never completed and the car stops at the edge of the road, yawning into space as thunder and lightning erupt. Vaksberg gets out to pace under an umbrella and is in mid-rant when the trunk of the Mercedes unexpectedly pops open and a figure opens up with a gun. Vaksberg’s bodyguard fires back and is mown down by sheets of submachine gun bullets, same with the driver, as Vaksberg drops to the floor and Anya hides inside the car. Meanwhile, Arkady grabs the bodyguard’s gun and walks calmly towards the boot and, as the assailant pauses to reload, shoots him dead.

To everyone’s surprise the shooter turns out to be the man who played Dopey from the Seven Dwarfs in the gala show earlier that evening.

Maya in the underground

Maya falls into the unhealthy orbit of a bully boy among the street kids, Yegor, who promises to find her baby for her if she becomes his whore. Zhenya tries to dissuade her but he can’t out-gun Yegor and his gang. Yegor’s mere name inspires terror.

Yegor’s name was a drop of ink in water. Everything took a darker shade. (p.62)

In fact, we now learn how and why the baby was stolen. After leaving the train holding Maya’s baby, Auntie Lenya emerges from the toilets in her true identity of Magdalena, and joins up with the drunken soldier who turns out to be her partner in crime, Vadim. They take the baby back to their flat and then on to an apartment overlooking the Three Stations. Here, in a crappy Soviet-era tower block, lives Colonel Kassim and his wife, who is always nagging him for a baby.

Now Kassim pays off Magdalena and presents his wife with a real baby. But it is crying for its milk and refuses to take formula. After twelve hours of non-stop crying Kassim’s wife is begging him to get rid of the horrible little brat.

He packs it in a box with airholes punched in it, puts it in a carrier bag and sets off through the drizzle to the chaos of Three Stations. On one of the concourses he finds nowhere good to ditch a whimpering baby and is wondering what to do next, when he realises – he’s been robbed. He put the bag down for a second and – it’s gone! Oh well. Job done, he returns to his apartment where his wife resumes her nagging.

The catchers

The two angry Catchers arrive in Moscow in pursuit of the girl who got away. They show people in the Three Stations crowds photos of Maya. One of the people they show is Zhenya, who feigns ignorance but realises Maya is in deadly danger and is wondering how to get word to her, but one of the other street kids has already been shown the photo and immediately told the bad guys Maya is holed up with the street kid, Yegor. Off they go to find her.

Angry Anya

The journalist Anya turns up on Arkady’s doorstep, soaking wet and furious. Arkady left her and Vaksberg at the scene of the shooting waiting for the militia who, of course, stole the Adidas bag with the cash in it and gave them both a grilling. Some friend he turns out to be! Anya sleeps on his sofa, carrying on giving him a hard time until Arkady rather angrily shows her the letter he’s just received from his boss, Zurin.

Arkady has been officially fired for disobeying the clear order not to take part in any further investigations. So he has no influence with the cops any more, that’s why he left the shooting scene, advising Vaksberg to take the credit for shooting the assassin.

Itsy’s gang

Now the novel introduces us to a new set of characters, the barely pubescent members of Itsy’s street gang. Turns out it’s they who stole Colonel Kassim’s bag and are astonished to find it contains a crying baby. The narrative gives us several half-comic descriptions of owners of shops around Three Stations being ‘steamed’ by a gang of children storming through their shop, causing havoc but, when the dust settles, only having lost nappies, wipes and milk formula. Aha. That’ll be Itsy’s gang deciding they are going to raise the baby as their own and stealing the necessary kit.

We get Itsy’s backstory, too. Like Maya’s parents selling her into prostitution and Zhenya’s dad beating him until he became a chess huckster or Arkady’s own dad bullying him until he can strip and rebuild a pistol, Itsy’s childhood was one of unmitigated misery. Her father was a dog breeder, often drunk, who forced Itsy to feed and tend his dogs. One day he went too far and began knocking her about inside the dog pen and the dogs, who had come to think of Itsy as their feeder, savaged him to death. She left for Moscow with the fiercest dog, Tito, and quickly carved out a space in the street gangs.

In the morgue

Inevitably disobeying his boss’s instructions, Arkady accompanies Viktor to the morgue to see Dopey’s body. Stripped bare it is covered with amateur tattoos. Viktor expains to Arkady (and the reader) that Russian criminal tattoos give an elaborate account of the owner’s criminal career. Dopey was no amateur; he was a hard-core professional criminal.

Arkady notices the crop of other corpses on ice in the morgue includes a young man who has committed suicide.

Viktor has been doing some research at Arkady’s suggestion, and found a number of other murdered young women from the past few years, all found without panties, with their dresses hitched up around their waists and their legs arranged in funny postures. In a flash Arkady realises all the murdered women have been posed in the classical postures of ballet training, the ones he saw at the Nijinsky Club!

Ballet dancers

Arkady sets out to interview the inhabitants of the tower block which overlooks the trailer where ‘Olga’ was found. He meets he choreographer of the Nijinsky Club, Madame Isa Spiridona, fascinating survivor from happier times, with her b&w photos of the greats.

With a shock Arkady recognises the photo of her son on the mantelpiece – Roman Spiridon – as the corpse he saw in the morgue. Madame Spiridona explains that she got a message to say he was going on a long trip, passed on to her by his old friend Sergei Borodin. And from another photograph he identifies the trapeze artist behind the scenes at the Nijinsky Club, the one who behaved as if he was mad, as the ‘friend’, Borodin. Could he… have murdered M. Spiridona’s son? Is he the killer?

When Arkady leaves, Madame S lets him take a coffee table book which has taken his fancy, about the great dancer Nijinsky, since ballet seems to be the thing and the club was named after him…

The catchers

Maya is plying her new trade under the supervision of young Yegor. She is in the middle of being screwed by a middle-aged Pakistani trader, Ali, who has broken off to go for a pee, when the two Catchers burst into the seedy hotel room. Ali returns to find them waiting for him. ‘Where’s the girl?’ they ask. They torture him but he doesn’t know. In fact Maya had heard a sound outside, hidden from the Catchers, then slipped into the hall and out while they attack Ali.

She steps over the body of Yegor, who has had his pool cue broken and stuffed down his throat before the Catchers then killed him. For his part, before he dies Ali mentions Zhenya, whose name he’s heard being mentioned by the girl and Yegor. Oops.

Anya attacked

When Maya finds Zhenya and tells him what she saw, Zhenya knows bad trouble is coming and phones Arkady. Our hero picks him and Maya up and bring them back to his apartment, where he interviews the terrified girl, along with trusty (if alcoholic sidekick) Viktor.

Half way through Arkady senses rather than hears something and goes cautiously into the next door apartment, the one recently leased by the pain-in-the-neck journalist, Anya.

He and Viktor discover Anya in a crumpled heap against the wall, no knickers and her skirt pushed up around her waist, her legs posed in ballet posture number 5, blue and not breathing.

Arkady realises she is suffering from anaphylactic shock, having mentioned something about being allergic to milk. He saves her life by finding her EPI pen in her fridge, and injecting her with a full dose in the thigh. Above her body, ‘God is shit’ has been sprayed in big words on the wall.

Anya starts and begins breathing. Soon she is conscious again. Arkady wraps her in blankets, feeds her, settles her on his bed, packs Viktor off to his long-suffering wife and settles down to read the book Madame Spiridona leant him. But it isn’t a book about Nijinsky, it is an edition of his notorious diary, which chronicles his descent into madness, and it falls open at one of his rants.

God is dog, Dog is God, Dog is shit, God is shit, I am shit, I am God. (p.218)

So Arkady realises: he is dealing with a Nijinsky-channeling, ballet-obsessed serial killer.

Itsy’s gang

In a weird scene Itsy takes some of her gang of kids shoplifting leaving the two boys, Leo, Peter and Emma to guard their camp and look after the baby. The two boys immediately sniff air freshener and have a trip. They see a brightly caparisoned Mongol from the Golden Horde approaching, jangling his bridle. In fact it is a street cleaning machine driven by a Tajik (although Muscovites call anyone who comes from one of the central Asian republics a ‘Tajik’, regardless of their ethnic identity).

The driver sees that the boards of several crates near the kids’ base have been broken off to make firewood. What they don’t know is that the crates contain a big consignment of Afghan heroin which is being stored here in the scruffy backstreets before being distributed.

The ‘Tajik’ is not happy at the discovery. He pulls Peter’s head back and is about to slash his throat, when the baby starts crying. Emma, who has seen all this, scuttles to the furthest end of the container, and watches as the ‘Tajik’ approaches the baby’s makeshift cot.

She – and the reader – fear the absolute worst and steel our nerves. But when Emma pokes her head out from cover, the ‘Tajik’ has left, and she discovers the baby alive and kicking, having been given an amulet with Koranic script on it to suck on. Thank God there is some humanity in this God-forsaken wasteland.

Anya apologises

It’s a few days later and Anya is well enough to be up and doing her part time charity work, distributing condoms to the street children. We see her being hassled by the militia who try to blackmail out of her box till they realise what’s in it. Back in the apartment block she knocks on Arkady’s door to thank him and apologise again. She has found out from contacts that Vaksberg is virtually bankrupt and has been creaming the money from his own charities. The whole incident with Dopey was staged by him. Dopey was meant to steal the bag of cash and make off, later giving it to Vaksberg (minus a fee) but he got carried away with the gun and sparked a bloodbath.

Anya carefully establishes that Eva has definitely left, and that Arkady is definitely a single man – before abruptly consenting to have sex with him. Arkady isn’t complaining.

The catchers

Itsy returns from the shoplifting trip and Emma tells her what happened with the ‘Tajik’. Itsy realises they have to leave this base. She hussles her gang into packing up and moving out, whipping them on ahead of her, but Peter and Leo are lagging behind. When she goes back to find them, she discovers they have both been shot dead by the Catchers, their little bodies lying in the mechanics trench next to the trailer.

Then Itsy herself is shot dead by Ilya, one of the Catchers. He crouches over her body and is not at all expecting Tito the wolf to attack him, knocking him onto the trench and, while his partner tries to get a clear shot, ripping open his carotid artery so he is dead in seconds. Tito then bounds out of the trench to kill the second Catcher, but he empties his magazine into the beast which falls dead.

Christ, he thinks, what a mess. How is he going to move his partner’s body? Then he realises there’s a laser red mark on his own body, and he himself is shot by the ‘Tajik’. Carnage.

Sergei Borodin

Arkady is fairly sure the trapeze artist, Sergei Borodin, is the killer so he rings him, and implies he has the evidence to convict him, and invites him to his apartment for a chat. Then Arkady sets up two separate tape recorders to capture everything.

Eerily, Sergei is accompanied by his mother, who clearly dominates and dictates his life (distant echoes of Norman Bates in Psycho). Realising he really thinks he is Nijinsky reincarnated, Arkady plays on his delusions and extracts a spectacular confession from Borodin. All helped when he stage manages for the supposedly dead Anya to enter Arkady’s kitchen dressed in the nightgown she was wearing when Sergei tried to murder her, at just the right psychological moment. Confronted by a ghost, Borodin screams his confession.

Sasha at the races

Arkady visits Vaksberg at a racetrack outside Moscow where the millionaire is hosting a bizarre party. When Arkady had left the scene of the shooting of Dopey, he had told Anya and Sasha to omit mention of his presence and claim that it was Sasha who foiled a daring attack on a respectable businessman.

This has had the unexpected consequence of turning Vaksberg into a popular hero and, even more improbably, he has been rehabilitated with the Kremlin, had his passport returned, and his ability to do business restored.

Hence he is getting back into the swing of things with a new business venture. Although the stands at the racecourse are empty, the loudspeakers blare out the sounds of cheering crowds, as the relatively small number of VIP guests quaff champagne and let them be persuaded by Sasha to get involved in his next enterprise, buying and breeding elite racehorses.

This isn’t the first time Arkady sees Moscow’s hyper-rich in action and each time it gets harder to bear.

On his mobile Arkady gets a call from Viktor identifying Dopey as a regular at the racetrack, Pavel Petrovich Maksimov. Without even being questioned, Sasha suavely admits to Arkady that the dwarf attack was staged, and confirms Anya’s story that, yes, he was, at that point, skimming money from his own charities. But now everything has turned out well – ‘more champagne, detective?’

Madame Furtseva

In his questioning of characters in the apartment block overlooking Three Stations Arkady had met Madame Furtseva, a world famous photographer, her rooms adorned with b&w photos of the mid-century greats, Hemingway, Malraux etc. Out of nowhere, she appears next to the startled Emma in one of the alleyways around the Square, and offers to take her in.

Old and infirm, Madame Furtseva explains that, although she can barely move nowadays, still she likes to spend her time staring out the window, observing the human wildlife prowling around the waterholes of the Three Stations. She has seen a lot of Emma’s story play out and offers to protect her and the baby.

Car chase with Sergei

To his astonishment Arkady’s solid gold confession from Sergei Borodin is rejected by Arkady’s vindictive boss, Zurin, because it was obtained while Arkady was not technically employed as an investigator. Borodin is released from custody to kill again.

Driving back from police headquarters in Viktor’s knackered Lada, Arkady finds himself terrorised by a shining black Hummer. There is a high tension car chase around the snowy, midnight-black streets of Moscow and when the Hummer draws level the automatic window slips slickly down and Sergei points a pistol at Arkady’s head, smiling like the psycho he is.

But all the time Arkady has been driving towards his own rundown neighbourhood, and in particular towards the pothole which has been causing him grief intermittently throughout the novel and which we have observed various squads of unhappy workman trying and failing to fill.

Now, as Sergei goes to pull the trigger, the Hummer hits the big pothole at 150 kph, upending into it so that Borodin mother and son go flying through the windscreen at speed. End of the Borodins.

The final catcher

In a final sequence the sort-of family of Arkady, Anya, Victor and Zhenya take a break at his father the General’s old dacha out in the country by a lake.

But – with wild improbability – Arkady has been ‘befriended’ by the second of the Catchers. Turns out he wasn’t shot dead by the ‘Tajik’ as we thought, just shot through the shoulder.

Now recovered, the Catcher makes efforts to adopt an (implausible) disguise, pretending to be a bookish intellectual who bumps into Arkady at libraries. He follows the ‘family’ to Arkady’s dacha and makes elaborate plans to swim across the lake in a wetsuit, emerge silently and kill them all in their beds.

Instead, as he emerges slickly from the black water, Arkady who had long ago rumbled his disguise, is waiting, and cuts him open from sternum to balls, then watches him writhe and die in the lake water, in clouds of his own blood.

This whole sequence feels like it comes from a different novel, even a different type of novel, a more straightforward action hero novel.

Maya’s baby returned

And in another scene which doesn’t quite match the tone of the book, the reader is surprised to encounter a fairy tale happy ending.

Arkady, Anya, Victor and Zhenya put on a little carnival in one of the squares around Three Stations, hiring a number of child-friendly acts, balloons and entertainers, jugglers and fire eaters.

Lured from her hideyhole up in the veteran photographer’s apartment, Emma wanders open-eyed among the marvels and, when Arkady asks her to, very gently hands little baby Katya back to her mother, Maya.

Against all probability, plausibility or reason, this made me burst into tears. Thank God that something good and innocent and pure is capable of coming out of the moral, physical, spiritual, economic and cultural desolation which is modern Russia.

Comment

Three Stations is the shortest of the Renko novels and feels like a chamber symphony, with all the same instruments and elements, but on a more domestic scale, based on tighter, tauter, more integrated plotlines and themes – especially the locale of Three Stations with its hookers, street kids and street crime.

The waiting hall at Kazansky station put Zhenya in mind of the nocturnal habitat at the zoo, a place where things stirred indistinctly and species were difficult to identify. (p.41)

Russia is depicted as a lost, doomed civilisation. Is it really as woeful, as impoverished, violent and corrupt as depicted in these novels? Are there really so many Russian prostitutes in Italy that the new slang word for prostitute is ‘Natasha’? (p.18)

Mind you, in 2009 when this novel was being written, the entire global financial system was nearly brought to its knees by clever bankers in London and New York, and Cruz Smith makes the point that, in many ways, we in the West are no better, having the New Russian billionaire crook Vaksberg drily comment:

‘A year ago we had over a hundred billionaires in Moscow. Today there are less than thirty. So it’s the best of times, the worst of times and sometimes it’s just the shits. It turns out we don’t know how to run capitalism. That’s to be expected. As it happens, nobody knows how to run capitalism. That was a bad surprise. Cigarette?’ (p.97)

Maybe because it’s shorter and tauter, there were fewer really breath-taking turns of phrase in this novel than in its predecessors, though there are still some crackers:

The Lada’s exhaust pipe and muffler hung low and occasionally dragged a rooster tail of sparks. (p.8)

He tried to sleep but his anger was a match struck before a mirror and he saw what a fool he’d been. (p.160)

As a footnote, I annotated for the first time something I’ve noticed in the past few Cruz Smith novels, a particular verbal formula which helps express Arkady’s sense of whatevere-ness, a kind of verbal shrug of the shoulders: his or the narrator’s habit of saying or thinking that, if something is not x, then what is?

The director of the children’s shelter that Zhenya originally came from claimed that the boy and Arkady had a special relationship. Zhenya’s father had shot Arkady. If that wasn’t special, what was? (p.9)

‘A healthy young woman was dead. If that doesn’t make you suspicious, what does?’ (p.89)

I like it. I like pretty much everything about these wonderful books.


Credit

Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith was published by Mantle in 2011. All quotes and references to the 2011 Pan paperback edition.

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’.

Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith (2007)

This is the sixth of the eight novels featuring Russian homicide investigator, Arkady Renko, and arguably the most Russian.

As usual there is an extensive cast list and lots of scenes, events and encounters which often border on the bizarre and even visionary. For example, one evening Arkady is driving through the choked Moscow traffic when he comes across a jam around the Moscow Supreme Court. Getting closer he sees canvas awnings and police guiding the traffic, so he gets out to ask what’s going on. A cop tells him that workaday excavations under the Supreme Court to build a new café and facilities have revealed a mass grave. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Russians during the Stalin era of the 1930s, 40s and 50s were brought directly from the court room down into the cellar and shot in the back of the head.

Later in the novel, in countryside hundreds of miles from Moscow, Arkady gets accidentally involved with a group which calls itself ‘the Diggers’, poor provincials who assemble every weekend at rural sites which might contain mass graves from the second world war, and here they dig up the corpses, looting anything valuable from the German ones, sending the Russian ones, where identifiable, back to their families.

This latter scene takes outside the town of Tver, where the Nazi advance into Russia was halted then reversed, for this novel, more than any of the others, is about the toxic legacy of Russia’s immensely troubled past on its chaotic, crime-infested present. This is the guiding theme of the novel and it is brought out through a number of intertwining elements.

Elements of the plot

1. Moscow

Stalin’s ghost It opens with riders on the late-night Moscow metro claiming to have sighted Stalin, standing clear as day on one of the central stations. Arkady is tasked with what seems the trivial mission of getting to the bottom of this odd story. When he rides the last metro he comes across a TV crew led by the director Zelensky, his assistant, Petya, and a thuggish minder, Boris Bogolovo aka ‘Bora’. They claim to have been simply filming the metro passengers but Arkady suspects them of doing something with mirrors or optical illusions, or somehow being involved in what he thinks is a publicity stunt, so he confiscates their tape, and shoulders his way past the protesting crew, including Bora who is obviously tempted to get physical, except for all the witnesses.

Once outside the station, Arkady realises Bora is still pursuing him. In a scene of mounting tension, the fit hard man Bora follows Arkady into the snow-covered Gorky Park, but the latter has cleverly lured him onto the snow-covered ice of the lake at the park’s centre. As Bora catches up, Arkady jumps up and down to crack the ice and Bora falls through it, drifting away from the hole and starting to drown. Arkady waits a good while before making another hole and dragging the half-drowned Bora out, pumping his chest to evacuate the water. Bora never actually attacked him and appears to have no weapon so Arkady can’t get him locked up, so makes sure he’s more or less recovered and walks away. This incident will have dire consequences later on.

Kuznetsov murdered In a completely unrelated development a big, stocky middle-aged man named Kuznetsov is found dead in his crappy workers’ apartment with a cleaver embedded in his neck. Arkady is called to the scene to find it being investigated by a pair of detectives we haven’t met before, the dapper Nikolai Isakov and the thuggish Marat Urman. They claim it’s an open and shut case, the wife is covered with blood and hysterical in the next room: she will be charged with the murder.

Comrade Platonov In another strand Arkady is contacted by a certain Platonov, an eighty-year-old chess grand master and unreconstructed communist party member. Platonov has asked for police protection because the communist HQ has been attacked a few times and Platonov has been threatened for speaking out against the current regime.

Tanya the garroter Half way through the novel Arkady is invited to a ‘party’ at this communist party headquarters, a rundown office full of junk equipment. A pretty young woman is there, Tanya, who he had previously seen playing the harp in the bar of the swanky Hotel Metropol. One purpose of the scene is to show how completely collapsed and demoralised the communist party now is, run by a handful of tired old timers.

But there is another purpose: Tanya the harpist drunkenly flirts with Arkady then insists he sees her home. When he is rummaging round in the tatty stationery room looking for their coats he is astonished to feel a piano wire – a wire from her harp! – slipped round his neck and the supposedly drunk Tanya suddenly using all her strength to strangle him. There is a mad struggle in which he pushes backwards, failing to back kick her, but eventually nutting her backwards and, in her temporary loss of grasp, whipping the wire over his head and punching her hard.

Tanya is arrested and Arkady taken to hospital with severe bruising and cutting round his neck. He is startled to learn from his assistant, Viktor Orlov, that Tanya is the girlfriend of the thuggish cop, Urman. Hmmm. Characteristically Arkady’s superior, the prosecutor Zurin, who hates him, prefers Tanya’s version of the story: she is claiming that Arkady tried to rape her. As usual, Arkady finds himself surrounded by enemies and deliberate misunderstanding.

Eva In the previous novel, Arkady had hooked up with a female doctor who was working in the eerie Exclusion Zone around the ruined Chernobyl power station, Dr Eva Kazka. He had ‘taken’ her from her divorced husband (who turns out to be the killer at the core of the novel, Alex Gerasimov) and brought her back to his Moscow flat where they formed an odd household, looking after the street kid Zhenya, who sometimes flops on their sofa, sometimes is absent for long periods.

But early on it becomes clear that their relationship is in trouble. Throughout the novel Arkady is given to playing tapes they made in the happy early months of their relationship, and lamenting the fact that they’ve drifted apart. This mainly seems to be because she’s obscurely re-activated a relationship she had from an earlier part of her career, when she worked in Chechnya during the troubled years of the 1990s, during Russia’s savage wars with the little republic (Chechen population 1.27 million, Russian population 144 million).

In fact, it is a surprise to learn the man who is taking her away from Arkady is his fellow investigator, Nikolai Isakov. Bit by bit we learn that he was a member of the special forces or OMON (also known as the Black Berets) in Chechnya and so was his thuggish sidekick, Urman. This is where he met Eva who was, being a principled rebel, tending Chechen civilians caught in the conflict. She testifies that Nikolai was genuinely brave, a born leader of his men, and went out of his way to be chivalrous to the Chechen population. Doesn’t stop Arkady being upset that she is leaving him.

Isakov’s political ambitions It emerges that Isakov has not only smoothly transitioned from leader of men in Chechnya to Moscow investigator – he also harbours political ambitions. He is the figurehead of a new ‘Patriotic Party’ which will ‘make Russia great again’. To this end he has employed two American political advisers, satirical portraits of two chancers named Wiley and Pacheco. And also the former porn movie director, Zelensky, who we met at the scene of the ‘Stalin sightings’ on the metro.

Arkady feels some kind of pattern emerging from the fog. When the distraught wife of Kuznetsov, the man we met with a meat cleaver in his neck, is found having ‘swallowed her tongue’ and died while in police custody, it prompts Arkady to revisit the morgue to examine the Kuznetsov’s body. Turning him over Arkady and Orlov see the massive tell-tale tattoo of the OMON on his back. Aha.

Isakov, Urman, Bora, Kuznetsov were all in the same OMON unit in Chechnya. Tanya who tried to kill him is linked with Urman. Eva who is dumping him met Isakov in Chechnya. What are they all trying to hide?

The Sunzha Bridge incident Slowly a theme emerges, a central incident on which the plot turns out to hinge: during the Chechen War, Chechen guerrillas attacked a Russian hospital and massacred all the doctors, nurses and patients, then fled in lorries. Nikolai Isakov was leading a group of six OMON troops by a small bridge which the guerrillas were reported to be heading for. Here they intercepted the trucks and engaged in a fierce firefight with the fleeing guerrillas, eventually killing 14 of them and repelling the trucks, with only one wounded on their own side.

Isakov’s American political advisers have made a big deal out of this heroic episode and are using it in their posters and promotional videos to boost Nikolai’s patriotic credentials. ‘What Russia needs is courageous leaders etc’.

Arkady undermines the legend But, typically, Arkady obstinately pokes and enquires and digs deeper and begins to suspect the incident is not all it was painted to be. Through contacts he comes across the alcoholic Jewish hunchback, Ginsberg, who was attached to the OMON as press and PR man. He arrived at the scene of the heroic fight by helicopter only moments after it ended and took photos from the hovering chopper. After building up his trust, Arkady gets Ginsberg to hand over the photos he took from the chopper down onto the scene of the fight, strewn with dead Chechens and heroic OMON forces. Having had time to examine them really closely, Arkady makes an appointment to meet Ginsberg again, but the hunchback fails to turn up and eventually Arkady discovers his body in a nearby street. He appears to have drunk himself insensible in a snowdrift and been run over by a snowplough with gruesome results. And the investigating officer? The thuggish Urman. It really feels like a conspiracy now.

No medal for Nikolai Following up all the leads, Arkady gets a meeting with retired Major Gennady Agronsky who was in charge of allotting medals during the Chechen War. Isakov’s name was put forward for one because of the much-publicised incident, but Agronsky looked into the incident in detail, and eventually refused to grant one. A few weeks later he was forced into retirement. Like Ginsberg he thinks there was in fact no firefight: he thinks the Chechens were hostages or somehow captives of the OMON forces who simply executed them and claimed the glory.

Arkady’s father A completely different thread which runs through the text is a series of vivid memories Arkady has of his father, General Kyril Renko. Kyril was an eminent general during the second world war (which the Russians call the Great Patriotic War). The Russians suffered so badly in the war partly because Stalin, in his paranoia, purged (ie executed) nearly the entire command structure of the Red Army, 1,000s of senior and experienced officers. He also refused to believe all the intelligence telling him Hitler was about to attack, believing all such reports to be Western disinformation, thus giving the Germans all possible advantages.

Arguably it was the weather and nothing to do with Russian leadership which halted then turned the tide of the German advance. If they had attacked 6 weeks earlier they might have taken Moscow and forced the collapse of the Soviet government (as in Robert Harris’s brilliant counter-factual thriller, Fatherland.)

Arkady’s father navigated all these horrors to become one of Stalin’s favourites, managing to survive both the war and the revival of purges in the later 1940s and 1950s (until Stalin’s death in 1953). Throughout the book Arkady meets characters who think his father was a great patriotic hero. But, in line with the book’s general theme of debunking the past, Arkady knows his father was a butcher in his professional work and a bully in his private life.

Arkady repeatedly relives the countless times his father bullied the young boy into stripping down then rebuilding a pistol. If he made any errors his father forced him to stand with his arms outstretched holding the gun, a pose which quickly became a form of torture.

But at the heart of his memories is Arkady’s obsessive rerunning of the summer day when his mother took him down to the stream near the family’s dacha, to collect stones, the little boy has no idea why. That night the General holds a massive party for all his Army colleagues and neighbours in the select neighbourhood of dachas. The mother is reported missing and a search party finds her down in the lake. She has filled all her pockets with the stones and drowned herself. The General is furious when he discovers Arkady, the innocent little boy, helped her collect them, and asks his friends to take the boy away before he kills him. Kyril never forgives the boy and is further embittered when he rejects a career in the Army to become a lousy cop.

So when various supporters of the new Patriotic Party tell Arkady how much they admire his ‘heroic’ father, Arkady doesn’t even have to reply. We know his version. By extension, we know how much contemporary myths and legends – and lies – distort the past.

Zhenya’s father Another father looms large in the plot. Zhenya, the runaway street kid we met in the previous novel, flits in and out of Arkady’s life. He is just one of the estimated 50,000 kids living wild on the streets of Moscow. Most of them aren’t abandoned, they’ve run away from abusive alcoholic parents. There are so many of them running wild and committing street crime that Putin himself has declared them a threat to national security (p.54).

Cruz Smith’s novels paint an unremittingly bleak and hopeless picture of contemporary Russia.

Zhenya is 12 now and still the startling chess prodigy we met in the previous novel. He and old comrade Platonov are invited to take part in a TV chess championship. Cruz Smith lets rip in depicting this televised fiasco as a symbol of the collapse of Russian culture: instead of grandmasters spending days in subtle battle as back in the glory years, this is ‘blitz’ chess, a knockout tournament where each player has just five minutes to play all their moves, for the entertainment of the cheering, mindless TV audience.

Cruz Smith describes the chess games of Zhenya and Platonov with characteristic clipped poetry. Despite not describing the actual moves, he vividly conveys the way Zhenya slaughters his opponents to make it to the final. In this Big Match Zhenya is poised to win when someone in the audience coughs, Zhenya glances up, and then to everyone’s amazement, deliberately resigns the game.

Outside the studio, he explains to Arkady and Platonov that he saw his father in the audience. His father? Arkady has been keeping an eye out for Zhenya’s father for several years, under the impression the boy was dying to be reunited with his errant parent. In the event the dad – Osip Lysenko – follows Arkady, Platonov and his son out into the snow where he proceeds to harangue them all, blaming Arkady for abducting him, eventually pulling an old-looking gun out, pointing it at Arkady’s skull and – without any warning – shooting him in the head!

Arkady’s recovery That was unexpected. The whole plot goes on hold while Arkady recovers in a weird and powerful chapter which intertwines status reports on Arkady’s blood pressure, heart rate and so on, with snippets he overhears of the doctors talking about him and vivid memories, especially of the mother drowning incident.

In particular we hear the docs explaining to his on-again, off-again partner, Dr Eva, that the gun was very very old, so old the bullet barely detonated, though it did enter the skull and mash some of the brain. Arkady had been accompanied by the ever-faithful assistant detective Viktor Orlik who promptly shot Osip dead.

The doctors operate to remove the bullet and then cut open the front of Arkady’s skull to relieve pressure on the brain. As the days pass, Arkady comes out from anaesthesia, argues with his nurses and doctors, receives visitors and, with typical obstinacy, insists on checking out before he is fully recovered.

This section contains some weirdly affecting passages where the recovering Arkady realises the extent of his brain damage: he is shown an orange and asked what colour it is, what shape it is. He knows, but can’t formulate the words. It would have been very interesting if he had continued in this slightly brain-damaged state. A brain-damaged investigator would (presumably) be some kind of first in the vast annals of crime fiction. And also Cruz Smith’s style, his approach, is so very alert to language and its manipulation, that it’s a shame he didn’t make more of this opportunity.

2. Tver

Instead, Arkady recovers with disappointing speed and decides he needs to drive to Tver, a town a few hundred kilometres from Moscow. Why? Because all of the OMON group Isakov belonged to come from Tver. The secret of his rise, what his squad got up to in Chechnya, the secret of the Sunzha Bridge, all will be revealed there.

Prosecutor Sarkisian Tver’s town prosecutor has been tipped off by Arkady’s boss that his subversive underling is coming, and organises a Russian welcome, ie the manager of the hotel Arkady’s been booked into shows him up to the room, slips on some knuckle dusters and is about to beat him up, when Arkady sprays fly spray in his face.

Arkady decides it’s safer to take a furnished room and replies to an ad which introduces him to one Sofia Andreyeva Poninski, who rents out to him a rather nice flat, furnished with oil paintings and classy rugs, claiming to do so on behalf of its absent owner, an academic on an overseas posting. Possibly the academic doesn’t even know it’s being let, but Arkady won’t quibble, and he sets about investigating the scene in Tver.

Rudi Rudenko After getting shouted at by angry provincials he realises he’s going to have to ditch his car with its Moscow number plates, and on a whim decides to rent or buy a motorbike. Answering an ad he goes to the beaten-up garage of a pony-tailed hell’s angel, Rudi Rudenko, initially violent (like all the Russians in these novels), who eventually calms down and sells Arkady an ancient motorbike with sidecar. Rudi lets slip that he is one of the ‘diggers’ and Arkady insists on coming on their next dig.

This is the big jamboree I referred to above, where fleets of cars, with families, bikers, history fanatics, treasure seekers with metal detectors, all congregate on likely looking sites to dig up bodies from the Great Patriotic War. For as well as being the home town of Isakov, Urman, Kuznetsov and all six of the Omon troops involved in the Sunzha Bridge incident, Arkady tells us that Tver is also where the German advance into Russia ground to a standstill.

On this rather slender basis, Smith makes Isakov and Urman turn up at this particular dig, accompanied by their Yankee advisors, Wiley and Pacheco, and the camera team directed by the seedy ex-porn director, Zelensky. The idea is that Zendensky is filming Isakov at various ‘patriotic’ events, building up a portfolio which can be edited into TV ads for the forthcoming elections. (Slowly, without us really realising it, Isakov has stopped being a police investigator and morphed into a populist political candidate).

Disaster at the dig This is the long climactic scene which brings together all the novel’s threads and all its key characters. Isakov and Urman are there, along with the creepy director Zelensky who films the activities, and the two American political advisors consulting on how he should behave. Arkady has been joined by Eva (actually now in Isakov’s entourage) and young Zhenya.

The diggers set about digging in the lee of a hilltop crowned with pine trees, Arkady watching fascinated, and little Zhenya with him keen to see old guns and grenades. Soon enough bodies start turning up, garnished with equipment and name tags. The Americans cue the director who positions Isakov to make a grand Patriotic Speech about the patriotic soldiers who gave their lives for the great nation of Russia – ‘Who is willing to make that kind of sacrifice nowadays etc?’

However, the whole plan is seriously scuppered when the woman who rented Arkady the flat turns up on the site as the official pathologist brought in to verify the provenance of the corpses, Dr Poninski. She ruins the mood by examining a series of corpses and announcing that they are indisputably Polish, garnished with Polish name tags, letters, weapons etc – and every one of them has been shot in the back of the head.

Far from being patriotic heroes, these bodies are just some of the victims of one of Stalin’s worst crimes, the execution of the entire officer class of the Polish people which, along with the systematic extermination of all its intelligentsia and managerial classes, was designed to reduce the Poles to eternal slavery to the Great Russian People (this is also the secret at the heart of Robert Harris’s great thriller, Enigma.)

Angry, demoralised, disillusioned, the majority of the diggers pack up and leave. But not Isakov’s sidekick, the volatile thug Urman. He insists on taking a shovel and moving up the slope into the trees and is followed by the boyishly excited Zhenya, so Arkady has to follow them too.

All through this scene there have been alerts about armed ordnance left lying around and references to the steady trickle of diggers who have, in the past, blow their legs off when a spade hit a grenade or landmine. As Arkady tries to reason Zhenya into leaving, Urman suddenly turns violent, knowing Arkady is on their trail about the Bridge incident and blaming him for everything which has gone wrong with Isakov’s campaign. Now he turns his shovel on Arkady, clouting him round the head, knocking him, stunned, into the hole he’s been digging and, madly, impulsively, starting to bury Arkady alive. When he’s shovelled all the loose dirt available onto our hero he starts digging up more, and that’s when he uncovers an anti-personnel mine which springs into the air, loaded with ball bearings and scrap metal, gives a gentle click, and explodes, cutting Urman in half.

A dazed Arkady slowly excavates himself from his grave, picks up Zhenya and staggers back to the dig headquarters, mounts his bike and drives back into Tver.

Isakov’s father Cruising along the high street he sees two figures outside the local security services (FSB) headquarters. It is Isakov and Eva, pacing up and down, deep in conversation.

When he joins them Arkady finds Isakov agonising about his father, formerly a senior figure in the Tver NKVD, predecessor to the KGB. Like Arkady, he had a powerful dominating father, but this one was an alcoholic. Just like Arkady’s, all his colleagues said Isakov’s father was a great ‘hero’ during the war – in which case, why did he become obsessed in later years with washing his hands and end up drink himself to death?

After the revelation of the Polish genocide at the dig, Isakov thinks he finally understands. Now for the first time he is inclined to believe the rumours he heard about his father that he was not some hero, he was actually the KGB executioner – locked into a room with a pistol, boxes of ammunition and a bottle of vodka – night after night he got drunk and shot in the nape of the neck hundreds, then thousands, of Polish army officers who were corraled into his underground cell, until he was ankle deep in blood and covered in human gore.

Isakov’s confession In this febrile mood, Arkady confronts Isakov with his theory about what happened at Sunzha Bridge and Isakov suddenly confesses. He reveals he wasn’t even there, he was off driving round with Eva. The unpredictable Urman was in charge. And they were doing quiet peaceful trading with local Chechen merchants. They were buying Chechen carpets, one of Chechnya’s cultural exports, which fetch a fortune in Moscow, let alone in the West, in Paris or New York.

They were all sitting round, having concluded the deal and sharing a civilised cup of tea, when news came through on the radio of the guerrilla massacre of the Russian hospital and – crucially – that an armed convoy of Russian troops was heading their way. Did they want to be found by their infuriated comrades sitting round sipping tea with the enemy? No. On the spur of the moment, Urman executed all the unarmed Chechens where they sat, and was arranging their bodies in likely postures of battle when the helicopter with Ginsberg the hunchback arrived. This explains why the latter’s photos show the scene below being dramatically altered over the course of just a few minutes, as Urman and the other boys from Tver tried to rearrange it to look like a violent battle scene.

Isakov confesses it all then takes out his pistol and points it at Arkady’s head. Yes, he admits, that’s why Kuznetsov and Ginsberg had to die – they were about to reveal everything and ruin Isakov’s political ambitions – and now it’s why Arkady has to die.

But at this dramatic moment Eva, who has listened to everything, puts her hand in her pocket and presses play on the little tape recorder she’s got hidden there, and it plays back part of Isakov’s confession. As he turns towards her she takes the tape cassette and throws it over the barbed wire gates into the FSB compound. There is no way any of them can get in to retrieve it. And it will inevitably be found whatever happens to them. Isakov stands open-mouthed, completely non-plussed what to do. Eva and Arkady walk away.

Arkady makes a call on his cell phone to his long-suffering boss, prosecutor Zurin, explaining how the chain of murders all go back to Isakov and Urman’s illegal carpet-smuggling racket in Chechnya, and how Isakov’s political ambitions now lie in tatters.

Final assault In the last few pages, Arkady, Eva and the reader think it’s all over and the couple are reunited again (though how their relationship will feel after her defection back to Isakov remains to be seen). So it is all the more shocking when they climb the stairs to the apartment Arkady had rented, push open the door – only to be confronted by the killer Bora from the opening scenes. He has already murdered Sofia Poninski – a traitor to Holy Russia for revealing the dig’s corpses to be Polish, half cutting her head off – whose bloody corpse is lying in the corner. For Bora is carrying a razor sharp knife which Arkady tries to seize – badly slicing the palm of his hand – before Bora sinks it into the side of Eva, and rams it upwards, as she gasps and is pushed back against the wall.

The street kid Zhenya is also there, barricaded behind a pile of chairs and furniture, somehow surviving the madman, and holding Arkady’s ancient pistol, the gun he owns but rarely carries. As Bora turns to Arkady knife in hand, Zhenya shoots him through the head. God, what horror.

Arkady runs for the phone and rings an ambulance and all the way to the hospital holds Eva’s hand as she goes in and out of consciousness. The nurse comes out of the operating theatre a few hours later and says it’s touch and go whether she will survive.

And on this bombshell the novel ends.

Dramatis personae

Moscow

Arkady Renko – tall, rather gangling everyman hero, who wanders bemused through the crime-infested landscape of post-communist Russia
Nikolai Isakov – hero of the OMON / Black Beret forces in Chechnya, not least for his heroic stand at the battle of Sunzha Bridge, currently working as a fellow investigating detective of the Moscow militia but who is standing for election to the Russian Senate, partnered by –
Marat Urman – his unpredictably violent sidekick
Dr Eva Kazka – the doctor Arkady brought back from Chernobyl in the previous novel, but who is now reviving her old love affair with Isakov
Zhenya – the twelve-year-old street kid and chess genius who drifts in and out of Arkady and Eva’s lives
Grandmaster Platonov – dyed-in-the-wool communist and one-time chess legend, now asking Arkady for protection from Russian ‘patriots’
Zelensky – former independent film director, now reduced to making porno movies, who’s hoping to step back into the world by directing election ads for Isakov
Boris Bogolovo aka Bora – former OMON fighter, hired to mind Zelensky and crew as they do promotional shoots for Isakov; humiliated by Arkady he takes his violent revenge at the end of the novel

Tver

Rudi Rudenko – pony-tailed biker who sells Arkady a knackered motorbike and through whom he gets to know about the ‘diggers’
Big Rudi – Rudi’s gaga grand-dad who remembers Stalin and the ‘good old days’ – when you could exterminate the intelligentsia of a whole nation and nobody made all this fuss!
Prosecutor Sarkisian – Tver prosecutor, tipped off by Arkady’s boss Zurin, who plans to get Arkady beaten up
Sofia Andreyeva Poninski – forensic scientist of Polish extraction who identifies the bodies dug up by the diggers as Polish officers who had been systematically massacred by Stalin’s secret police / NKVD.


Thoughts

This is the third of the novels to centre round illegal smuggling – of sables in Gorky Park, art works in Red Square, Chechen carpets here. The criminal activities at the core of each novel rarely justify the convoluted webs of mayhem they seem to set in motion. To do that, Cruz Smith has to deploy some occasionally far-fetched plot twists and coincidences which aren’t always believable. In this one I never really believed in Isakov’s political ambitions, the central thread in the plot.

For a start, this would surely have been the very first thing Arkady would have had in mind about Isakov when we met him – a fellow investigator standing for the Senate would have been pretty big news in any office.

Then Isakov’s campaign itself seems oddly flaky and amateurish. There don’t appear to be any of the staff and volunteers you expect of such a campaign, with the exception of the not very believable American campaign advisers. And they advise their candidate to come up with a crude publicity stunt about Stalin and then go to the site of a mass grave and the exhumation of hundreds of dead bodies. Not classic feel-good photo opportunities, are they?

Similarly, the presence of Zelensky the ex-porn movie director allows Cruz Smith to make salient points about Russia’s thriving porn and prostitution industries (including a harrowing scene where Arkady gets to view footage he and friends shot of them gang raping a naive volunteer who wants to break into the movies). But it was never really clear how the footage he was shooting either in the Moscow underground or at the grim dig was going to be used in campaign ads.

Finally, the freakish story which starts the book, the supposed appearances of Stalin on the Moscow metro, are initially mystifying and eerie, so it is disappointing when they end up being explained away as mass hysteria sparked off by a few agents provocateurs who Zelensky and his people have planted on the trains. Once they start shouting ‘Stalin Stalin!’ it’s easy for the raddled drunks and ancient baboushkas on the late night tube to catch the fever, and think they saw something too. Was that all there was to it? And what a peculiar idea for a publicity stunt?

Then again, questioning the plausibility of some of these storylines is to misunderstand how Cruz Smith’s novels work. These rather eccentric plot lines are a) colourful in themselves but b) really serve as emanations of the commanding vision of the book – the dominance of the Present by the horrors of the Past. Their function is not to be plausible, but to be illustrative.

They should be seen less as storylines which have documentary verisimilitude, than as poetic embodiments of the novels’ themes and ideas.

And, of course, they act as opportunities for Cruz Smith to deploy his wonderfully spare, poetic prose.

Style

Cruz Smith is a great prose poet. He combines tremendous perception and acuity of observation with a dazzling ability to shape and turn a phrase.

She had long red fingernails and as she turned a cigarette pack over and over Arkady was put in mind of a crab inspecting dinner. (p.3)

Antipenko and Mendeleyev sat side by side, like the stones of a slumping wall. (p.35)

Outside the day faded, the sun a bonfire in the snow. (p.53)

Of the rackety Moscow metro:

The others gasped when the lights of the car flickered and sparks shot up between the tunnel and the train. This was the oldest section of the entire system. Rails were worn. Insulation frayed. Blue imps danced around the switches. (p.69)

Viktor took a first sip of vodka like a butcher whetting his knife. (p.231)

Not on every page, but regularly enough to have your breath taken away, the reader is dazzled and grateful for Cruz Smith’s ability as a writer, as a shaper and moulder of the English language.


Credit

Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith was published by Macmillan in 2007. All quotes and references to the 2008 Pan paperback edition.

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’.

Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith (2004)

Fifth in the addictive series of novels about former Soviet (and now plain Russian) homicide investigator, Arkady Renko, who we first met in Cruz Smith’s 1981 international bestseller, Gorky Park. It’s 23 years later and a lot has happened in that time, namely the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the bewilderingly quick transformation of Russia into a criminal society, dominated by billionaire oligarchs and a ferocious mafia, just about held in place by Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian state.

Cruz Smith/Renko’s unique selling point is the way he uses routine police procedurals to delve into this murky society. (In fact, its two predecessors had varied the scene by being set in Germany and Cuba, respectively.) This one marks a return to Mother Russia for its beginning, before shifting scene to become a wonderfully haunting evocation of the devastated towns and villages around the nuclear power station at Chernobyl, in the Ukraine.

The corpse

Millionaire Pasha Ivanov has apparently killed himself by jumping out the tenth floor of his luxury apartment block. He was the president of a typical new Russian enterprise, NoviRus. The novel opens like a scene from Colombo or a thousand other American cop dramas with all the dead man’s business partners, mistresses etc gathered tearfully in the apartment as Arkady assesses them and asks the time-honoured question: Did he jump or was he pushed?

Assembled are Arkady’s boss, angry prosecutor Zurin; Arkady’s assistant, the burly alcoholic Victor; the dead man’s girlfriend-cum-interior designer Rina Shevchenko; a NoviRus vice-president Lev Timofeyev; and Ivanov’s fat American fixer, Bobby Hoffman. Not physically present, but looming in the background is the head of NoviRus security, the feared Colonel Ozhogin.

Arkady and co had in fact already been investigating Ivanov’s affairs but, with his death, Zurin is keen to get a quick decision that it was suicide and so close the case. The official reason is that we Zurin and his superiors don’t want to do anything which will spook foreign investors any more than necessary, Moscow has a bad enough reputation anyway, etc.

But Arkady, as is his way, refuses to move quickly. He ponders. Does Zurin has darker motives for his hurry to shut it down? Did their investigation prompt the suicide? Why, though – they hadn’t turned up anything incriminating – or were they on the verge of doing so… questions, questions.

The milieu the dead man moved in, the circle of Russia’s new super-rich, is vividly depicted when Arkady, in a later scene, crashes a party of the New Rich and is quietly appalled:

They saw themselves as the robber barons of the American Wild West, and didn’t someone say that every great fortune started with a crime? Russia already had over thirty billionaires, more than any other country. That was a lot of crime. (p.81)

A search of Ivanov’s apartment had turned up one standout peculiarity: his wardrobe was found to be full of salt, there was salt in several drawers and cupboards, there turns out to be salt in his gut and he was clutching a salt shaker when he jumped. Why?

Zhenya

In a separate strand, Arkady has been inveigled by a lady friend into visiting an orphanage and cheering up the kids, so that they end up taking one of them out for the day, the silent, traumatised 11-year-old Evgeny Lysenko aka ‘Zhenya’.

Next time Arkady turns up at the orphanage to discover the lady journalist hasn’t, and so Arkady finds himself, reluctantly, taking the totally silent boy out for another outing and then, despite himself, drawn into taking him on regular Sunday outings, the boy permanently silent and clutching his chess set and book of fairy tales while Arkady, as so often, questions himself, his action and his motives.

Moscow

The first hundred pages of this 400-page novel are set in Moscow, as Arkady pursues various leads in the Ivanov case, viewing and reviewing the CCTV footage from the dead man’s apartment building, meeting a notorious Mafia hardman, Anton Obodovsky, who phoned Ivanov in his last hours (Arkady has the ‘lucky’ break of finding the dead man’s phone kicked under his bed), wondering if there’s some underworld connection…

These scenes emphasise the thing about Arkady’s character which makes him so appealing. He is not stupid – he is honest, thorough, diligent. But most of the time he doesn’t know what is going on and is as puzzled as the reader. Which is what makes him so likeable.

Towards the end of this section he is searching Ivanov’s apartment for the umpteenth time when he comes across, right at the back of some drawers, more salt and then a dosimeter wrapped in a hankie. Arkady recognises it from his military training a long time ago, as the device you measure radiation with. ‘100’ is about a normal background measure. Arkady turns it on and pokes round the flat and in the wardrobe covered with salt, the reading is 50,000. Arkady’s mouth turns dry, his heart races. Someone was poisoning Ivanov with radioactivity – God, has he, Arkady, also received a fatal dose? (p.106)

Chernobyl

With no warning, without even the opening of a new ‘part’, the next chapter cuts to the abandoned towns and villages around the gutted Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine. What? Why did that happen? And it turns out the rest of the novel is devoted to describing the scenery, atmosphere and mood of this strange abandoned place, while Arkady gets to know the handful of locals who still live there and the scientists who are studying the disaster’s impact. How? Why?

Because NoviRus vice-president, Lev Timofeyev, who we met in the opening scene, has been found dead, murdered, in a graveyard in a village in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Arkady’s boss, the prosecutor Zurov, angry at Arkady’s obstinate refusal to confirm Ivanov’s death as suicide, uses the mysterious death to get Arkady out of Moscow and far away from the Ivanov case.

Once again (as in the stunningly good Polar Star) Cruz Smith has come up with a brilliantly imaginative setting for his roaming, endlessly inquisitive hero to explore and investigate, and for his wonderfully evocative prose to paint.

Arkady is shown round the Zone by head of the local militia, Captain Marchenko, upset that his unblemished record has now been blotted with a murder. He introduces Arkady to denizens of the Dead Zone, including environmental scientists led by Alex Gerasimov and his estranged, intense, wife, Eva Kazka. It takes Arkady a long time to realise the odd love-hate relationship between them and only at the end is Alex revealed as a psychopath. Initially he had been courtesy itself, showing Arkady round the zone, introducing him to his fellow research scientists, and in one hair-raising scene, giving his own detailed account of the sequence of events which led to the nuclear disaster (p.214).

In fact Cruz Smith gives Alex a speech conveying a messianic vision of nature returning to claim its own, at a little party given by two old peasants who refuse to leave their village home, Roman and Maria Panasenko (p.219). Alex drunkenly shouts that it’s ‘normal human life’ which is killing nature – if only we could create Zones excluding human beings around the world – maybe every country should have a nuclear catastrophe! (p.164)

Arkady slowly pieces bits of a very confusing jigsaw together, tangling several times with the psychotic Woropay twins, Dymtrus and Taras, who patrol the streets of the ghost city, Pripyat, on roller skates armed with ice hockey bats and night vision goggles (!)

The novel raises and explores numerous dead-ends:

  • A shadowy figure, Hulak, phones Arkady requesting a rendezvous at the vast and eerie cooling lake in the shadow of the abandoned reactor. But when Arkady arrives it is to find locals pulling  his body out of the water, where they found it, shot through the head.
  • Lev Timofeyev’s body was found by a certain officer Karel Katamay, who has since gone missing. Arkady goes to visit Katamay’s father, a tough old construction worker in the city which was built to house evacuees from irradiated Pripyat after the disaster, Slavutych. Confined to a wheelchair by an accident, the angry old man stuffs wild animals and has taught his daughter, Katamay’s sister, Oksanato to hunt and shoot them for him.
  • Arkady is surprised to discover his ‘assistant’ Victor Orlov, is in Kiev (capital of the Ukraine, 140 km due south). He has been sent by Prosecutor Zurin to tail Anton Obodovsky – the hard man Arkady spoke to early on in the book – who now appears to be creating a new identity – new teeth, clothes and haircut, as if about to flee the country. Did he have something to do with Ivanov’s death? Why is he fleeing?
  • Arkady sees a hooded motorcyclist riding out of one of the abandoned villages with a sidecar stuffed with icons from the peasants’ houses. Next time he disturbs the motorcyclist in mid-theft and gives chase on his own motorbike, in an exciting ride through overgrown fields, across streams and swamps.
  • In the event, the phantom thief turns out to be Eva Kazka, Alex’s neurotic, chain-smoking ex-wife, a doctor who spent some time in Chechnya so has seen a lot of brutality, and hides the scar of an operation on her thyroid gland under the scarf. Arkady finds himself lured into an uncomfortable love triangle, not least as Eva tends to make love with a loaded gun either pointed at or alongside her lover. Alex ambushes Arkady and beats him up, a fight which also ends with Arkady having a loaded gun pointed at him. Tough loving.

As mentioned, what makes the Arkady character so attractive is the way he is caught up in situations he only partly understands. He is a sort of everyman figure, wandering through the chaos of post-communist Russia, clever, fit enough, curious, but endlessly on the back foot.

There is a powerful, random scene where Arkady is driving somewhere in Moscow and suddenly comes across rival gangs of skinheads and neo-fascists (supporting Spartak and Dynamo football clubs, respectively) having a riot at a traffic jam on the highway. Tattooed thugs are simply smashing the windscreens of stationary cars, dragging out their terrified occupants, and kicking seven bells out of anyone foreign-looking. Arkady weighs in to save a Vietnamese couple (who it turns out he knows), waving his police badge and pistol around. Only when he’s well into the melee of thugs does Arkady realise that he has in fact removed the bullets from the gun to make it safe for the occasions when he takes young Zhenya out. At which point he feels the sweat breaking on his skin, continuing to threaten the hordes of tattooed hooligans, but knowing any of them could call his bluff at any moment.

It’s a very Arkady scene, our hero a) well-intentioned but b) somehow cocking things up and c) beneath his personal plight, a deeper insight into, a snapshot of, the violent car crash which is contemporary Russian society.

The Jewish connection

Arkady is very surprised when the dead Ivanov’s fat American fixer Hoffman arrives in Chernobly, especially as he is accompanied by a short, but very tough Jewish security man, Yakov, ‘the oldest Jew in the Ukraine’ (p.230), who remembers the famine in the Ukraine, the Red Army and the Nazis – and survived them all.

There emerges a strong Jewish thread to the novel, which brings out the disastrous fate of the Jews of the region. When the Germans invaded in 1942 the people of Pripyat enthusiastically rounded up all their Jews, forced them into boats on the river and shot them up, picking off anyone who tried to swim to safety. (All this reminds me sickeningly of Tom Snyder’s horrifying history book, The Bloodlands.)

In Moscow Hoffman had tried to buy Arkady’s support. Now he has followed him to Chernobyl – but why? As the formal investigation dwindles down to a trickle and then sputters out amid the haunted scenery and strange post-apocalyptic characters of the Zone, Arkady finds himself drawn to Hoffman and Yakov. There are several weird evocative scenes at their camp out by the abandoned Chernobyl Yacht Club, a rusting quay with abandoned boats lining the muddy river.

When Arkady hears that hard-man Colonel Ozhogin is on his way south, he goes out of his way to persuade one of the Zone characters – Bela, a crook who owns a vast boneyard of radioactive cars, trucks, military vehicles and cuts them up and flogs them in the markets of Kiev and Moscow to unsuspecting punters – to smuggle the two Jews out of the dead lands.

It is entirely in keeping with the weird, static, trapped feel of the place and the novel that Arkady then discovers the two Jews changed his instructions and bribed Bela to drive in completely the wrong direction, right to the gates of the nuclear reactor, where Arkady discovers them bobbing their heads as they repeat the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

Only now does it emerge that Ivanov, himself a Jew, had sent Hoffman down here the previous year to pray for him, to seek forgiveness, to beg God’s mercy on his soul, but Hoffman was too sceptical, shy, too American and resistant, to do it. But after the poisoning and suicide of his boss he is at last prepared to make his small supplication in front of the looming concrete ‘sarcophagus’ built over the fatal reactor.

It doesn’t quite make sense as a storyline – like a lot of the plot – but its slight implausibility is dwarfed by the poetry and the imaginative power of the scenes it leads to.

Officer Katamay

Finally Arkady tracks down the security guard who found the body of Timofeyev at the remote graveyard, one Officer Karol Katamay (p.177). He had, suspiciously, gone missing immediately afterwards. Through a sequence of contacts Arkady tracks him down to the baroque setting of the abandoned theatre in the empty ghost town of Pripyat (p.309). Here, Katamay is revealed lying on a divan on the empty stage, his hair carefully beaded and tended, a blanket over him supported by comfy pillows but guarded and patrolled by the two psychotic ice skating twins. Like Pavov and Timofeyev before him, he is obviously stricken by severe radiation sickness, almost continuously bleeding from the nose. Arkady finds out that Alex the research scientist got to know Katamay and asked him to do a job in Moscow.

He was paid to sneak into Ivanov’s apartment, when Alex created a little outage in the security system, with lead-lined boxes, and to wear gloves as he scattered radioactive salt through the apartment. But it seems he wasn’t careful enough and himself became contaminated.

Shootout in Pripyat

The narrative takes Arkady away for further meetings with Eva, phone calls to Victor and so on, before being called back to visit Katamay again. This time he finds the sofa and the recumbent Katamay in the surreal setting of Pripyat’s abandoned funfair. But to Arkady’s disappointment, he has only very recently been stifled with a pillow which, as a result, is soaked in arterial blood. Arkady is holding the murder weapon looking down at the freshly dead man when a swishing sound announces the return of his friends and protectors, the Woropay brothers. They cry out in anguish at the death of their friend and Arkady can only run run run through the deserted streets and into a derelict building, up the stairs, throwing himself out the first floor window onto detritus below and running running running for his life until the brothers catch him, pummeling him to the ground and telling him they’re going to enjoy this as they start to hit him. Bang! One brother falls dead. The other turns to look around and bang! He is dead, too.

Groggily, Arkady looks up to see the blazing-eyed Alex, the visionary scientist who wants the whole world to be irradiated to save it for nature. He makes Arkady pick up one twin while he shoulders the other and they stagger back to the body of Katamay on the sofa. Here Alex turns and finally reveals the whole story.

Ivanov and Timofeyev were assistants at the Institute of Physics in Moscow, assisting Alex’s father, esteemed academician Felix Gerasimov (p.139). On the night of the disaster (26 April 1986) Gerasimov senior had drunk himself unconscious and so when the call came through to the Institute from the Chernobyl reactor, and then from the local authorities, asking what to do – it was Ivanov and Timofeyev who advised them to hush it up and do nothing. Thus poisoning maybe millions of local inhabitants unnecessarily, including the hundreds of thousands who turned out for the May Day parades in all the nearby towns and cities five days later. Including Eva, who had patiently explained to Arkady that her bitterness and anger stem from being irradiated as a teenager, by the stupidity of the authorities. All caused by the craven cowardice of Ivanov and Timofeyev.

On a personal level, when Gerasimov sobered up and realised the bad advice his underlings had given, he immediately ordered an evacuation, but it was this chopping and changing of scientific advice which fatally added to the administrative delays, exposing hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, to contamination. Gerasimov had been haunted for years and years by his personal failure, until he finally shot himself.

And his son, Alex, was consumed by bitterness at the whole shambles – the drunken father who eventually kills himself, the irradiated lover, the poisoned population. No wonder he had such edge and nerviness in him from the moment Arkady met him, no wonder he was ready to explode into a fierce fist fight when he found Arkady at Eva’s cottage (see above). No wonder he turns out to be an embittered killer.

The big reveal

Now, as he and Arkady drop the bodies of the Woropay twins by the body of the dead security guard Katamay, Alex does what all baddies do in standard crime and thriller novels – he explains the mystery. It was he, Alex, who began to persecute Ivanov and Timofeyev as punishment for that awful night. It was he who secured supplies of difficult-to-access radioactive Cesium 137, indistinguishable from the common or garden salt which he mixed it with and which he had delivered to Ivanov’s apartment, along with the dosimeter, so that Ivanov would realise what had been done to him, and why. By the time Ivanov figured out what was going on it was too late, he’d been too exposed and even eaten some of the radioactive salt.

Alex had arranged for the delivery to be made by a gullible security guard, Katamay, who he’d befriended in the Exclusion Zone and paid to go to Moscow – but the fool was careless and contaminated himself as much as the victims. Alex realised that the dying Katamay was on the verge of revealing everything to Arkady and so, just half an hour earlier, smothered him with his pillow. And now has killed the only other people who Katamay might have told, the Woropay twins.

All through this explanation Alex has been pointing his gun at Arkady. He explains that he’s going to arrange the bodies in just such a layout that it looks like they’ve all shot each other – and shot the intrusive Moscow investigator, too.

The local investigators are not up to Moscow standards (as the way they botched the investigation into Timofeyev’s death demonstrated) so it will be easy enough to fake the scene and make it look like they all shot each other. So he asks Arkady to move just a bit to his left, yes, this should be about the right angle, just about – BANG!

Arkady barely hears the shot before he realises Alex is crumpling to the ground. Out of the shadows emerges Katamay’s sister, Oksana, who we met in the apartment of her overbearing father in Slavutych, and who we now remember was taught how to use a hunting rifle since she was a little girl. She had come to see her brother. She found him dead. Then she overheard Alex’s admission of his murder. Now the rather simple girl asks, ‘Did I do right?’ Arkady, his heart barely pumping at his sudden reprieve, reassures her that yes she did, then tiptoes away from the scene of these multiple crimes, leaving her cradling the head of her dead brother…

Epilogue

It is some months later. Eva is living with Arkady in Moscow and they both now regularly take the silent orphan Zhenya for outings.

They get a post card from the ancient peasants Eva had introduced him to in the Exclusion Zone, Roman and Maria, inviting them back for a small village feast and and decide to drive back to the blighted land for a visit.

Here, in an unexpectedly moving conclusion, Eva and Arkady assist with the ritual slaughter of the village pig and – to everyone’s amazement – Zhenya talks, enthusiastically throwing himself into this gross, pagan, primitive action, something in it releasing his spring.

After the butchering and the ritual feast for the small number of locals, Zhenya, Eva and Arkady motor back to Moscow with hope in their hearts for the future.

While some of the plot devices are hackneyed or convenient, over-riding them is the attractiveness of the Arkady character, the inventiveness of the situations he finds himself, the sheer imaginative otherness which Cruz Smith captures so brilliantly. This is a fabulous marvellous book.


Wonderful prose style

Cruz Smith is a pleasure to read, not only because of the intelligent plots, and the winning character of Renko himself, but also because of his magic turns of phrase. Admittedly not on every page, rationed to a handful per chapter – but when they come they set the language alight.

The marble lobby was so brightly lit that everyone wore halos. (p.38)

Of the suicide’s body, as captured on CCTV:

Upper and lower body collapsed into a ring of dust that exploded from the pavement. (p.40)

Colonel Ozhogin menaces Arkady at NoviRus HQ:

Ozhogin leaned closer, a hammer taking aim on a nail. (p.56)

And generally, he has a way of making the language dance.

Evgeny Lysenko, nickname Zhenya, age eleven, looked like an old man waiting at a bus stop. (p.17)

There was something smug and miserly about Victor when he drove, as if he had figured out one bare-bones sexual position. (p.63)

The Chernobyl militia station was a brick building with a linden tree sprouting from a corner like a feather in a cap. (p.145)

Black smoke poured out of the tailpipe of the Moskvich like a bad temper. (p.154)

Bela picked a hair off his shoulder. In his dirty white suit he looked like a lily beginning to rot. (p.305)

When Eva and Arkady finally make love, it is described in spare clipped sentences and then an extraordinary image.

They were two starving people feeding from the same spoon. (p.279)

Cruz Smith is one of the best poets in prose I know of writing today.


Dramatis personae

Moscow

Arkady Renko – Tall, skinny hangdog Russian homicide detective, who starts out investigating the mysterious death of multi-millionaire Pasha Ivanov, but ends up exploring the eerily devastated landscape around Chernobyl in the Ukraine.
Prosecutor Zurin – Arkady’s boss who gets cross with him – like all his bosses do – for persisting with his questioning even after being told to stop.
Victor Orlov – Arkady’s alcoholic assistant detective.
Pasha Ivanov – New Russian multi-millionaire CEO of NoviRus whose apparent suicide kick starts the plot. Turns out he was dying of radiation poisoning, sent him in revenge for the role he played in the Chernobyl disaster.
Rina Shevchenko – Ivanov’s girlfriend-cum-interior designer.
Lev Timofeyev – NoviRus vice-president, also poisoned with radiation.
Colonel Ozhogi – head of NoviRus security, who comes gunning for Arkady in Chernobyl.
Bobby Hoffman – Ivanov’s fat Jewish assistant.
Yakov – The tough Jewish hired gun Hoffman picks up to protect him when he comes to the Ukraine.
Evgeny Lysenko aka ‘Zhenya’ – 11-year-old orphan who Arkady finds himself looking after.
Anton Obodovsky – Mafia hardman who phoned Ivanov hours before his death but has the excuse that he was in prison at the time. But when Victor reports seeing him in Kiev, apparently undergoing a change of identity, Arkady wonders if he somehow killed the millionaire and is now about to flee.

Chernobyl

Captain Marchenko – head of the local militia in the Excluded Zone around the abandoned Chernobyl power station, initially friendly to Arkady who manages to alienate him by disobeying advice and accumulating dead bodies wherever he goes, as usual.
Alex Gerasimov – chief environmental scientist in the Exclusion Zone, starts off courteous and considerate, but reveals his nutty side when he explains that there should be more nuclear accidents so that nature can return to the devastated zones, and beats Arkady up when the latter begins an affair with Eva, his ex-wife, before finally emerging as the murderer.
Eva Kazka – Alex’s estranged wife, a doctor, bitter at being unnecessarily irradiated because the authorities didn’t evacuate local inhabitants in time, she has served in Chechnya ie seen many horrors. She and Arkady end up having an edgy affair during which she more than once threatens him with a gun.
Felix Gerasimov – Alex’s father and one-time head of the Institute of Physics in Moscow, who was drunk and unconscious when news came through of the Chernobyl disaster, thus allowing his two subordinates Ivanov and Timofeyev to give the bad advice to the authorities to do nothing.
Roman and Maria Panasenko – two ancient peasants who’ve refused to leave the Zone and live in in their one-bedroom hovel, raising vegetables and livestock. It’s at a small party at their house that Alex makes his big speech about how nature would benefit from more nuclear disasters. And the novel closes with a moving account of Eva, Zhenya and Arkady invited back to their house to take part in the slaughter of their pig and accompanying fiesta.
Officer Karol Katamay – of the Chernobyl militia, Katamay finds the body of Timofeyev in the cemetery in the Excluded Zone with his throat cut. Turns out he was persuaded by Alex to deliver radioactive cesium mixed in with salt to Ivanov’s luxury apartment to poison him, but in the process Katamay contaminated himself and is now close to death.
Katamay senior – Katamay’s father, an overbearing construction worker, injured in an accident and now wheelchair-bound, assisted by his daughter, Katamay’s sister, Oksanato, who he has taught to hunt and shoot wild animals from an early age.
Oksanato Katamay – Karel Katamay’s sister, a rather simple-minded young woman, totally bald from radiation poisoning, who turns out to be the deus ex machina when she shoots and kills Alex Gerasimov just as he was about to murder Arkady. Phew.
The Woropay twins, Dymtrus and Taras – simple, stupid and very violent young men, good friends of the dying Katamay, they like skating round the empty streets of the ghost city of Pripyat brandishing ice hockey sticks and wearing night vision goggles. When the twins discover Arkady apparently red-handed in the act of smothering their friend at the climax of the novel, the twins chase him through the empty streets of the ghost town, catch and are about to finish him off, when they are both expertly shot by the psycho Alex Gerasimov.
Bela – Dodgy businessman who runs a huge scrapyard full of the vehicles abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster, who makes money by breaking them up for parts which he sells in Kiev and Moscow. Arkady persuades him to pack up and leave, taking Bobby and Yakov with him before the fearsome Colonel Ozhogin arrives to wreak havoc on anybody he thinks is threatening NoviRus. Bobby in fact pays Bela to drive them to the very gates of Chernobyl where Arkady finds him and Yakov, in a weirdly powerful scene, offering Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of the dead, to the vast radioactive sarcophagus.


Credit

Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith was published by Simon & Schuster in 2004. All quotes and references to the 2005 Pan paperback edition.

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’.

Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith (1999)

Havana had been the staging area for the treasure fleets of the Spanish empire. Over time silver and gold were replaced by American automobiles, which were replaced by Russian oil. All of this was handled in the warehouses of a barrio called Atares, and when the Soviet Union collapsed parts of Atares, like a half-empty vein, did too. One decrepit warehouse dragged down its neighbour, which destabilised a third and spewed steel and timbers into the street until they looked like a city that had undergone a siege, stone pulverised in heaps, garlands of twisted steel, not to mention the potholes and shit and doorways heady with the reek of urine. (p.230)

This is not the Havana of the tourist brochures.

Arkady Renko

The fourth in Martin Cruz Smith’s series of novels about Russian investigator, Arkady Renko, opens on a down note with the deaths of two main characters from previous books. Arkady was contacted from the Russian Embassy in Havana by an official asking him to come and investigate the disappearance of his old friend/sparring partner, ex-KGB Colonel Sergei Pribluda.

Pribluda was working undercover at the Russian Embassy in Cuba, something to do with investigating the murky world of sugar and trade deals. His body – or a horribly bloated, waterlogged version of it – has been discovered in the broad Havana Bay. He was copying the local neumáticos, poor fishermen who can’t afford even the simplest boat, and so fish suspended inside inflated car inner tubes, with a bit of netting strung underneath to support the body. Not much protection against sharks or other underwater perils, but it wasn’t a shark that killed Pribluda. What did?

Much worse, we discover that Arkady had finally married Irina, the woman he met in the first novel of the series, the best-selling Gorky Park, but that she has died in a stupid mix-up in a shambolic Russian medical clinic, injected with penicillin when she had expressly stated her allergy to it. Arkady had popped out for a newspaper and returned to find her stone dead. After smashing the place up in a fury, he retreated to his apartment, from which he rarely emerges any more, no matter who comes knocking on the door, his mood not helped by the futility of police work in a post-communist Russia where crime rates have soared and half the politicians are from the mafia.

The call from Cuba offered a journey as pointless as everything else. Why not go?

Suicide

In fact so completely dark and ashen is Arkady’s world that in the opening scenes we see him steal a syringe from the forensic lab where Pribulda’s body is being cut open and later, back in his temporary apartment, get as far as raising a vein and pricking it, right on the verge of injecting 10 centilitres of air into his system, which will make his heart stop and kill him. Committing suicide.

But it’s at this moment that the burly minder and translator he’s been assigned by the local police, one Rufo Pinero, breaks open the apartment door and hurtles Arkady back against the apartment wall, stabbing once with a knife, narrowly missing and retracting his arm to try again when – he realises the long needle of a syringe is sticking out his ear, through which it has entered his brain. Arkady has stabbed him in self defence with the needle he was holding, without even realising it. Rufo staggers away, slumps to the floor and dies. That changes things.

The case

The cops are called and, ironically, Arkady who came to investigate a death now finds himself at the centre of a murder investigation. He is removed from his flat – now a crime scene – and parked at the empty apartment of the (presumed dead) Pribluda. Here, true to his incurably nosy character, Arkady searches everything and hacks into Pribluda’s computer, finding only hints and tips, nothing massively revealing.

Having stolen Rufo’s key from his still warm body before the cops came, Arkady now searches Rufo’s apartment, finding cryptic notes written on the wall by the phone. After some deciphering they appear to refer to his arrival in Havana and to another event occurring in a week’s time, with Angola written next to the time and date. Angola? Arkady is far from convinced that the bloated body found in the bay is Pribluda, anyway. And he finds a photo showing Pribluda, Rufo and some of the other police he’s met, with the words ‘Havana Bay Yacht Club’ scribbled on the back. What’s that about?

The tension is ratcheted up a notch after Arkady lets one of the investigating cops, sergeant Luna, into the apartment only for him to pull out a baseball bat and start jabbing Arkady with it, asking him what he knows about the Havana Bay Yacht Club. Swiftly the jabbing escalates to a full blown attack, Luna beating Arkady’s legs from under him and then mercilessly battering him on the ribcage, with a few final blows on the face for good measure.

Luna warns him to stay in the apartment and not to go out until the weekly flight to Moscow comes round, when Luna will drive him direct to the airport and put him on the plane. ‘Got that, Russian? Stay here. Don’t move.’

Ofelia Osorio

In fact it takes Arkady a few hours to recover consciousness and several days before he can even walk. But as soon as he can, he finds himself drawn out of the apartment, by visitors and invitations, though all against his better judgement. Slowly – and very enjoyably for the reader – a complex web of relationships is revealed as Arkady meets a cast of 20 or so disparate and colourful characters, each of them contributing fragments to the plot but also acting as a cross-section of Cuban types: cops, scientists, prostitutes, businessmen, garage mechanics, neumáticos, voodoo worshipers, as well as the few surviving old timers from the former Soviet Embassy, and a couple of sinister American exiles…

Lead character is the black policewoman Ofelia Osorio. We see her being harassed by her sexist colleagues at work, returning to her tiny apartment which she shares with her two daughters and her nagging mother, and we get a strong sense of their poverty, fighting over a banana, discussing how best to cook a mango skin.

We are also introduced to Ofelia’s one-woman crusade to try and cut down on teenage prostitution in Havana, or at least try to tackle the ubiquitous police corruption which turns a blind eye to it. She arrests a middle-aged German at a well-known love motel where foreign men take Cuban teenage girls – in this case the 14-year-old Teresa. As Ofelia interviews the German we get a feel for the impossibility of her task, as he ignores all her threats, confident in his foreign passport and his dollars.

And the young prostitute – or jinetera – turns the tables on Ofelia by bragging about how much money she makes a month, multiple times Ofelia’s own pitiful salary. And we are sadly shown how Ofelia’s crusade is driven by fears that her own young daughters, just a few years from jinetera age, will end up the same, walking the seafront touting for rich foreign men to sleep with. She is trying to secure the future for them but knows she can’t.

Frustrated, Ofelia returns to the hotel, the ‘Casa de Amor’, to pick up the other foreign man seen taking in a teenage Cuban, but stumbles into a blood bath. The foreigner has been comprehensively cut to pieces with a machete and the Cuban girl he was with has had her head almost completely severed. Ofelia realises she knows the girl, Hedy, and runs to throw up in the toilet. But it overflows, she realises it’s blocked and, pushing her hand through the blood and puke, she pulls out a scrunched-up passport and photo blocking the U-bend. It is a photo of Renko taken at the airport. The assassin must have mistaken the foreigner, similar build, even a similar name – Franco / Renko – for the Russian. Someone really has got it in for him, but why?

Slowly, through the course of the novel, these two lonely, damaged people, Arkady and Ofelia, find themselves being pushed together. She tells him about the hotel bloodbath; they discuss theories about a) what’s happening b) why someone’s trying to kill him. Later – in a film-like sequence – Arkady rescues Ofelia from the car boot where the increasingly wayward sergeant Luna had tied and locked her. After this harrowing event, they drive to a remote hotel, like bandits on the run, shower, calm down and, in the warm Havana evening, in a safe hotel room far from their enemies, become lovers.

Cast of characters

But while their love affair is slowly building in the background, plenty of other things happen in this multi-stranded narrative. At a party in his apartment block Arkady meets a whole roomful of disparate characters who will help shape the warp and woof of the narrative as well as providing all sorts of insights into Cuban culture and history.

For a start there is a black woman devotee of Santeria, a form of voodoo, who goes into a frenzy, moaning to the beating drums and picking up live coals for the fire. In fact there are several extended sequences explaining the differences between the various voodoo gods of Cuba and their present-day followers. Even Ofelia knows which voodoo clan she belongs to.

Then there is the desperate ballet dancer, Elaine Lindo, whose father was executed after he became involved in one of the many conspiracies against Castro, and who hopes against hope that a Russian like Arkady can get her out of the country so she can pursue her dancing career in the free world. She targets Arkady for seduction but underestimates her man and his disillusioned world-weariness.

The American exiles

And then there is a middle-aged black American, George Washington Walls who, back in the 1960s, was a well-known radical and urban guerrilla, who hijacked a plane and got it to bring him to Cuba: and now we see what the afterlife of such a figure looks like.

It looks very like being a capitalist entrepreneur, as he takes Arkady for a drive in his 1950s car and introduces him to an older American exile, John O’Brien. The two Americans take Arkady on a tour of the casinos abandoned after the revolution and explain their grand scheme to revive them, to make Cuba once again the playground of the Caribbean. They even offer Arkady a job as ‘head of security’ in their bright new empire.

Arkady has a shrewd suspicion they are bribing him, coaxing him into revealing other secrets: like what he knows about this damn Havana Bay Yacht Club. Later, when Arkady makes his way out to what was once the yacht club out at one end of the bay, he finds its luxury buildings fallen into disrepair – it became first a socialised sports club and then was abandoned. And he finds Walls waiting for him on a power yacht moored at the pier. What are they up to, these two smooth-talking, post-radical Yanks?

The scam

Among other colourful locations around Havana, Renko’s investigations take him to the city’s Chinatown. He knows from Pribluda’s computer records that Pribluda went for a ‘karate lesson’ here every week, with $100 cash. But when he asks the way to the address given on the computer, he finds it is now a hairdressing salon. Walking back Arkady passes a cinema where a ridiculous karate film is playing and suddenly recognises the film’s title as mentioned on Pribluda’s files. On an impulse he pays a few pesos and goes in. Barely has he sat in the darkened auditorium than a stylishly dressed, middle-aged man sits next to him and they get into a muttered conversation, the man wanting the money in return for a briefcase. OK.

Back at the apartment, Arkady finds the briefcase contains documents detailing how, at a very high governmental level, the Cubans have been defrauding the Russians out of about possibly hundreds of millions of dollars in their Russo-Cuban sugar trades. Partly by paying ‘commission fees’ to a supposedly neutral Panamanian company, which had been acting as referees in a trade dispute between the two countries, but which the papers show is owned by senior Cuban officials. Is this what Pribluda was investigating? Was this enough to get him murdered? But what has it go to do with the Havana Bay Yacht Club? Or with O’Brien and Walls’ plans to make Havana the Las Vegas of the Caribbean?

Only in the last thirty pages or so do all these disparate threads and characters suddenly and powerfully come together, as Arkady and Ofelia stumble over the conspiracy at the heart of the book – discovering too late that they have been trapped into taking part in it.

Dramatis personae

  • Arkady Renko – Moscow militia investigator with a colourful past as described in the three previous novels about him. Called to Cuba to investigate the death of his old adversary-friend Colonel Pribluda.
  • Colonel Sergei Pribluda – Arkady’s sparring partner in previous novels. The plot is triggered when his corpse is found in Havana Bay, so bloated the pathologist and Arkady aren’t even sure it is him.
  • Ofelia Osorio – black Cuban police officer, waging a one-woman campaign against the exploitation of Havana’s teenage prostitutes or jineteras. Through her eyes we explore Cuba’s poverty and corruption, its ambivalence about the communist regime and Castro, its hatred of the Russians who abandoned them, its deep attachment to voodoo beliefs and practices.
  • Sergeant Luna – big black ex-Cuban soldier-turned-cop who beats Arkady up and turns out to be a strong man for Walls and O’Brien’s conspiracy.
  • Dr Blas – Forensic pathologist, cynical witness to Havana’s murders and deaths, an educated amiable father figure, who shrewdly discusses the Pribluda case with Arkady, half-heartedly invites Ofelia to foreign conferences as a way of chatting her up, and is revealed at the end to be in on the conspiracy.
  • Rufo Pinero – ex-boxer, ex-soldier and now translator for the Havana police. The mystery really begins when he makes an unprovoked attempt to murder Arkady who, up to that moment, he’d been perfectly friendly with.
  • Erasmo – mechanic in the illegal garage downstairs from Pribluda’s apartment where Arkady is staying. He fought in Angola where his legs were blown off by a mine, and now gets about in a wheelchair or trolley. He introduces Arkady to elements of Cuba’s black economy and to the beauty of the many 1950s American cars which still cruise the streets. He is included in several old soldier photos Arkady finds, along with Luna and several of the other characters. Slowly it emerges that they all forged a bond as soldiers in Africa, and have brought that unity back to Havana, but for what purpose?
  • Mostovoi – Russian photographer working at the Russian Embassy. When Arkady breaks into his apartment he finds official photos, then a predictable range of porn photos, and then sinister photos of crime scenes, some of them connected with his case.
  • Olga Petrovna – a plump old lady who works at the Russian Embassy. Arkady eventually finds out that she and Pribluda were lovers, it was she who knew about Arkady from Pribluda’s occasional references to him, and it was she who wired him using Embassy facilities when Pribluda went missing, asking him to come investigate.
  • Bugai – official at the Russian Embassy. Arkady tricks him into confessing that Pribluda was on the trail of the Cuban government’s defrauding Russia out of millions of dollars over its sugar deals, and that Pribluda had to be ‘got out of the way’. And ensures that this confession is heard and taped by Olga Petrovna and police officials. Bugai’s fate will not be nice…
  • George Washington Walls – runaway American 1960s radical and airplane hijacker from the same generation of black radicals as Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael, who he name checks. But Walls is now a fully-fledged capitalist and entrepreneur, involved in O’Brien’s plans to revive Cuba’s casinos, and other, murkier plots.
  • John O’Brien – 70-year-old American exile who owns luxury yachts, fancy cars, and beguiles Arkady with his plans to revive Cuba’s casino business. Freely admits to running the Havana Bay Yacht Club which, he claims, is a harmless social club, ‘Come along and see for yourself!’ But underneath the charm he is planning something big… but what?

Fidel Castro

Dictator of Cuba after the communist revolution in 1959, well known for always wearing his Army fatigues, smoking an enormous cigar, for his big beard and interminable speeches, Fidel looms over the whole novel, all the Cuban characters not even referring to him by name, but just stroking an imaginary beard or pointing to their chins. (When Cruz Smith describes Fidel’s habit of never making his plans public, sleeping in any number of secret locations, decoying assassins with fake motorcades while he slips off in the opposite direction in an unmarked car and so on, it immediately reminded me of Frederick Forsyth’s description of the identically paranoid behaviour of Saddam Hussein in The Fist of God.)

The crux of the novel turns out to be a conspiracy among Fidel’s senior army officers to assassinate him, with the organisational help and technical know-how of O’Brien and Walls, and their cohort of soldiers who met and bonded while serving in Angola – including Luna, Erasmo, Mostovoi and a few others.

Fidel’s one and only actual appearance in the novel is to attend a waterfront cultural display, a Noche Folklórica, with live music and dancing. He is given pride of place in a purpose-built stand and – in a gruesome touch – sat next to a life-size voodoo doll. Watching in the boat in which O’Brien and Walls have brought him, just offshore of the big musical performance, Arkady realises with a jolt that the doll is one which he and Ofelia discovered, earlier in the book, had been specially constructed so as to hold radio-controlled explosives. (It’s a long story). But now he sees the connection: Mercenaries in Angola + Their expertise in mines and explosives + Resentment of Fidel among the general population and especially the military + Walls and O’Brien’s grandiose plans for a post-communist Cuba = assassination of Fidel.

It all fits together. The Havana Bay Yacht Club was just an innocent name the conspirators gave themselves as cover for their meetings. And, in the final twist, O’Brien now reveals to a horrified Arkady that all they needed to make the conspiracy complete was the involvement of an outsider, of a hated Russian, to push the remote controlled switch, blow up the dummy, and then be gunned down by distraught patriots – thus disposing of the dictator and pinning the blame on Cuba’s now most-hated-enemy. Perfect! as he forces Arkady at gunpoint to take the remote control device.

Since we know that Castro is still, in fact, alive, it is giving nothing away to say that the conspiracy doesn’t succeed. But it comes desperately close. The assassination makes a thrilling central plot, it brings together the social and political themes of failed communism and disillusioned soldiers – and it also gives Cruz Smith the opportunity to do what he does best, describe the great man in a few lines of typical, throwaway brilliance.

In the front row’s places of honour were an empty chair and a man with a grey beard who looked as if he had been big once but had since shrunk into a stiff green shell of ironed fatigues. He had the abstracted expression of an old man regarding a thousand grandchildren whose names he could no longer keep track of. (p.314)

Angles

So it’s essentially a crime novel, but with interesting twists:

a) It’s set in Cuba (no doubt lots of other crime novels are, but I’ve never read any). The novel is drenched in descriptions of the sights and sounds of Havana, the smells and music, the scantily clad prostitutes and their razor-thin pimps and the somnolent cops, the rusting balconies of 1930s houses and the streets full of colourful 1950s American cars. And the pages devoted to explaining the voodoo cults which Cubans still believe in and widely practice are fascinating and compelling.

b) The hero is a disillusioned Russian, thus giving us a) an outsider’s view of everything but b) the outsider not just to the exotic location, but to us, the readers – not the usual Brit referring things back to London, but a melancholy, middle-aged man homesick for the frozen streets of his own crime-ridden, corrupt Moscow.

c) The combination allows Cruz Smith to spend pages describing Cuba, the streets of Havana and its bay, in particular; but to overlay or underpin these with continual references to the troubled political history between the USSR and Cuba. Russia spent billions supporting Cuba as one of the few countries which could boast a successful communist revolution, making it a flagship to the whole of the Americas and funding Cuban soldiers to fight in Africa and support other revolutionaries around the world. So much so that Arkady blames the Cubans for bankrupting Russia. Then, when the USSR collapsed, the tap was abruptly turned off. And now, in 1996 (when the novel appears to be set) the Cubans’ respect for Russia has turned to bitter hatred. As Rufo tells Arkady, the Soviet Embassy shed thousands of officials as Russia withdrew its technical and financial aid to the island. And so infuriated were the locals that they slashed the tyres of every Russian car and local taxis refused to give them a lift, so that the fleeing Soviet staff ended up having to walk to the airport.

So, as well as the pacey plot, there are numerous other levels, cultural, historical and political, on which to enjoy this novel.

Magic prose

The most obvious of them is Cruz Smith’s graceful command of the English language. Many people write novels, but not so many are actual writers, people who can make the language perform magic tricks.

‘It’s perfect.’ Arkady let out a plume of smoke as blue as the exhaust of a car in distress. (p.10)

‘Habit.’ Going through the motions, Arkady thought, as if his body were a suit that shuffled to the scene of the crime, any crime, anywhere. (p.25)

He lived in Miramar, the same area as the Embassy, in an oceanfront hotel named the Sierra Maestra, which offered many of the features of a sinking freighter: listing balconies, rusted railings, a view of the water. (p.63)

Mostovoi pondered the photograph of a Cuban girl lightly breaded in sand. (p.63)

Luna held up a key to illustrate and put it in a pocket. He had a voice like wet cement being turned by a shovel. (p.77)

They went past high rises that had the dinginess of fingered postcards… (p.137)

Most of the prose isn’t this showy but it is consistently enjoyable, fluent, casually poetic or, where it needs to be, to the point, factual, understated. It is effortlessly competent and appropriate. After recently reading several novels by John le Carré it is a relief to get away from the British class system, from obsessive references to jolly public schools and characters who say ‘old boy’ at the end of every sentence. To enter a realm where the writing is pure and free to fly, to perform acrobatics, a prose which simply tells you what is going on with a consistently wry, detached humour, and with poetry to throw away in wonderful asides.

Fishing boats with rod racks and flying bridges slid by, speedboats as low and colourful as sun visors, and power yachts with sun lounges and Jet Ski launches, oceangoing palaces of affluence and indolence sculpted in white fiberglass. (p.164)

There were no streetlamps on the Malecón, only a couple of faint headlights like the sort on luminescent fish found in an ocean trench. Although he latched the shutters closed and lit a candle, darkness continued to seep into the room with a solid, tarry quality. (p.208)

From its perch a canary seemed to examine Arkady for a tail. (p.226)

Outside they heard the ocean say, This is the wave that will sweep away the sand, topple the buildings and flood the streets. This is the wave. This is the wave. (p.244)


Credit

Havana Bay was published by Random House in 1999. All quotes and references to the 1999 Macmillan paperback edition.

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’.

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’.

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (1981)

Moscow was a low city. From the river it almost disappeared into its own somnolent ether. (p.65)

Tall, gaunt Moscow criminal investigator Arkady Renko is a disappointment to his father, the cranky old war-hero general; a disappointment to his bitch of a wife, Zoya, who is openly having an affair with a colleague and trying to divorce him; and a disappointment to his friends, who don’t understand his lack of ambition.

Three bodies are found dead in Gorky Park, the pleasure park complete with funfair and ice-skating ponds which borders the river Moskva in central Moscow. They have been shot at close range, then had their faces removed with a skinning knife and the tips of their fingers cut off to prevent identification. The three had been skating and are still wearing their skates.

Gorky Park is the long, densely written, fiercely imagined account of Arkady’s investigation into the bizarre murders, a thread which – in the best thriller tradition – leads to the unravelling of a bigger conspiracy which draws in the KGB and CIA. Along the way we are introduced to a large number of colourful and persuasive secondary characters, but the book’s main achievement is to take you right inside a brilliant depiction of Cold War Soviet Russian society. (It is set in the spring and early summer of 1977.)

The Russian background

is stunningly authoritative, deeply researched, totally convincing. It is not just the organisational structure of the KGB or Moscow militia, the relationship with the Ethnographical Institute or city prosecutors and lawyers – the kind of organisational knowledge an author like Len Deighton is so expert at – It is the way Smith inhabits the tired, jaded, everyday relationships between the workers in all these places, captures the mundane routines and tips and tricks and bypaths of such a society. It takes the kind of repartee you get in familiar American cop shows and sets it in a completely alien environment, utterly there.

I don’t know whether ‘Fuck your mother!’ is a common Russian expletive or whether there really is a ‘Siberian Dilemma’ (You are in Siberia fishing on a lake through a hole in the ice -the ice breaks and you fall in – do you stay in the water and freeze to death in a few minutes or get out into the -40 degree air and freeze to death immediately? p.214) or whether urka is the name for Russia’s tattoo-covered professional criminal class (p.75) – but every aspect of the novel’s Russianness – from the street layout of Moscow, the description and feel of different parts of the city at different times of day and night, the crunch of the snow and then the spring flowers breaking through, the taste of the cheap vodka, the squalor of state apartments, the constant bugging and surveillance, the horrible food in the cheap cafes, the fear and tension surrounding the presence of KGB officers, above all the Russian repartee of all the characters – all of it is thoroughly persuasive.

Characters

Arkady is a sort of hero: but although as honest and upstanding as Philip Marlowe, he is also cold as a fish, continually calculating, trying to read the runes and uncover the true murderer. In the early part of the novel Smith artfully surrounds Arkady with a penumbra of related characters:

  • Zoya, his cold wife, full of hatred for him, openly having an affair with a colleague, Schmidt, then later interrupting tense moments in the narrative to bother him about the divorce she is instituting
  • Pasha, his foul-mouthed competent assistant investigator
  • Flet, another investigator imposed on him and pretty obviously a KGB stooge reporting back to…
  • Major Pribluda, the stocky, aggressive KGB man who hates Arkady from when the latter correctly accused him of murdering a pair of dissidents two years earlier, as a result of which Arkady was beaten up by mysterious assailants, and the case quashed.

The plot – part one

Arkady gets little Professor Andreev, so short he compares himself to a dwarf, head of Moscow’s Ethnographic Institute, to reconstruct the face of one of the victims, a ticking process which accompanies the early investigation and promises much. Meanwhile, forensics show that a) one of the corpses had dental work of a type only done in America b) the corpses’ clothes carried traces of gold and gesso associated with religious paintings and icons, as well as specks of chicken blood and meat.

When Arkady puts out an all-Russia alert for missing persons a call comes through from distant Siberia that a local hoodlum, Kostia, and his moll, Valerya Davidova, have been missing for a while. Meanwhile, the female corpse’s skates have a name inside, that of Irina Asanova, who reported the skates stolen a few months earlier and works on the set of the Moscow film studios. In a separate strand, Arkady is taken by his boss, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, to an elite sauna and steam-room for the exclusive use of KGB and senior officials. Here he is introduced to the smooth, suave John Osborne, a tanned, silver-haired American, who swaps barbed comments with him.

As he delves deeper he discovers Osborne has been in and out of Russia since the War when, as a young man, he was involved in channeling support to America’s brave ally against the Nazis. Even in those early days he was making important contacts with influential Russians, especially in law enforcement and the KGB. Things begin to come together when photos emerge of Osborne in Siberia at a farm for sables, the slinky wild mammals whose fur is tremendously valuable. Then the police in Siberia reveal that Kostia and girlfriend at one time worked in a local sable farm.

Via his underworld contacts Arkady finds black marketeer, Golodkin, who complains that John Osborne commissioned him to find an icon chest, an antique covered in religious imagery and containing distinct drawers, only to dump him at the last minute and not buy it. Does Arkady want to buy an antique icon chest? No. But when Arkady orders his colleague Pasha to go with Golodkin to his apartment, they are both shot dead. Arkady is clearly on the right track…

The plot is complicated (very complicated) by an unprovoked attack on Arkady while he is back in Gorky Park one night, re-imagining the murders. He is badly beaten then narrowly escapes being shot by a well-disguised assailant. KGB? Underworld mobster? Foreign agent? Takes a number of further twists before Arkady discovers it is one William Kirwill, a New York detective. He has traveled from the States to investigate the murder of his younger brother, James.

A further distraction/complication is the way Arkady finds himself – upset and hurt by his wife’s abandonment – falling for the angry but vulnerable Irina – and then discovering she has some kind of relationship with the sleek American Osborne.

Through the mesh of numerous further twists, turns and nailbitingly intense scenes Arkady pieces together the story.

Memorable scenes

include:

  • Irina being mugged in the Moscow underground and placed on the railway lines with 2 minutes till the next train as Arkady does battle with her two assassins
  • Arkady driving out to meet his father, the General, old and frail but still seething with anger
  • Arkady smuggling himself out of Moscow on a train north packed like a cattle truck with stinking, smoking, leering convicts heading for Siberia (pp.256-249)
  • His convalescent home is threatened by a sudden forest fire and Arkady finds himself thrown into the chaotic fiery confusion of trying to fight the flames (pp.282-285)
  • Kirwill killing a KGB agent with his bare hands by battering his skull to pulp (p.229) The book is not for the squeamish

The story is

American John Osborne has made a lot of money using his important contacts stretching back to the war to conduct various import-export deals to Russia. But his secret plan has been to get hold of and smuggle live sables out of Russia – the fur-exporting capital of the world – and set up his own breeding programme in the States. Given how quickly sables breed, and how much their pelts are worth, within five years he will have a sustainable multi-million dollar business.

Kostia and Valerya brought him the live sables stolen from a Siberian farm, but they wanted more. In exchange for supplying an icon chest big enough to smuggle the sables in, they also wanted to be smuggled to the west, to freedom. James Kirwell was a young born-again Christian Osborne came across in his travels and brought to Moscow to show Kostia and Valerya how easily he could move people in and out of the USSR. Thus assured they gave him the sables and the chest and set off with James for a happy afternoon skating, before a rendezvous when Osborne was to meet them with vodka, sausage and details of their escape route. Instead, he shot all three of them quickly, with a gun hidden inside the bag of food and drink, the final victim, Valerya, so paralysed by fear she couldn’t run.

But Arkady’s unravelling of the mystery is hampered throughout by the heavy-handed interventions of the KGB. His boss, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, is fully supportive of him and invites Arkady out to his dacha in the country where, in a vivid scene, we watch him call eider ducks across the frozen lake and feed them while pledging Arkady his support. Later, as the net tightens, Iamskoy calls him in and reprimands him for the increasing number of corpses (Pasha and Golodkin, his childhood friend Misha) he’s leaving in his wake and tells him to hand over the case. Arkady refuses and, in the climactic scene of part one, he is ambushed by Osborne’s sidekick, the German Unmann, and badly stabbed in the gut before himself stabbing Unmann then drowning him as they both fall into and struggle in a pool in the grounds of Moscow University where Osborne has lured him.

Unable to break free, Unmann tried to bite, and Arkady fell back, carrying the man down into the water with him. There the German sat on top, squeezing Arkady’s throat. He looked up from the bottom of the pool. Unmann’s face grimaced, fluttered, divided, ran back together and split apart like quicksilver, each time less coherently. It broke into moons and the moons broke into petals. Then a dark cloud of red obscured Unmann, his hands went slack and he slid out of view. (p.260)

With Unmann dead, Arkady, bleeding badly, surfaces from the pool only to find his superior, the man who has backed him without hesitation, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, pointing a gun at him. Goodbye Arkady, he says, you were always my best investigator: there is the bang of a gunshot but it is Iamskoy who collapses, the top of his head blown off. It is Irina who has shot him. Run, says Arkady – and collapses…

Part two

The 70 pages of part two take the novel beyond ordinary intense, fast-paced thriller territory into a strange place, for Arkady takes a long time to recover from his severe belly wound and this section follows his recuperation in tremendous detail, the days and nights watching the ceiling of his hospital room as he drifts in and out of drugged sleep; then the increasingly aggressive visits of various KGB agents to question him.

And then he is moved out to a rest home in the country where, of all people, Major Pribluda is assigned to stay with him. Slowly the two men, while continuing to hate each other, form an edgy respect. When Arkady is well enough to walk he accompanies Pribluda, who is of true peasant stock, down to the garden of the house where the Major sets about creating a vegetable garden, taking off jacket and tie to labour long and hard for days on end to prepare the soil, hoe and turn it, before planting seeds of radish and lettuce, then creating an elaborate irrigation system and weeding his plot. All the time the pair exchange memories of life in Soviet Russia, clash over the pair of dissidents Arkady knows Pribluda murdered, discuss the details of the Gorky Park case.

Throughout this section Arakdy overhears nurses, KGB men smoking and playing cards, and even Pribluda saying – it doesn’t matter what you do or think, Renko. You are going to be shot.

Part three

Except he isn’t shot. To his (and the reader’s) surprise he finds himself on a plane to New York. The KGB have spared his life so he can do a deal with Osborne, now safely back in the States. I must admit, at this stage I stopped understanding what was going on. What deal? Osborne is safe in his own country with the sables, he doesn’t need anything. It emerges that Irina is with him; they let her go; she has been sleeping with Osborne all along and she ‘made’ them let Arkady come to her. Why? So they can be together because she loves him. OK. But why is Osborne letting her have Arkady? And why are the KGB letting Arkady go to the States? So he can track down the sables and kill them?

And why, then, do the KGB hand Arkady over to the CIA who set him up in a cheap whore’s hotel and follow him about, while they figure out what their deal is with Osborne.

Free to come and go as long as he returns to the hotel, Arkady meets up again with Kirwill who squires him around the Big Apple. In a bit of a plot hole, out of the entire vast pullulating city, it is rather a stroke of luck that a drunk lowlife trying to sell a black polecat he trapped in a remote part of Staten Island comes to Kirwill’s attention. It is a sable and Kirwill immediately realises Osborne must have set up his sable farm not far away.

It is the CIA operatives – Wesley, George and Ray – who take Arkady out to Osborne’s sable farm the next day. Here, at the sable farm on Staten Island, there is a bloody shootout.

For a start the arriving CIA and Arkady find Kirwill’s body bound to a tree and eviscerated, his guts hanging out his belly (p.357). Osborne did it. ‘He shot my dogs,’ he yells, more than a little demented on his home turf. A little later Arkady finds the crook who was trying to sell the sable, himself shot through the head. But as they approach Osborne over the snow, with no warning he shoots dead two of the CIA agents, one flees, Arkady throws Irina to the ground and runs off into the farm buildings.

Thus begins a deadly cat and mouse game between Arkady and Osborne between the cages of the mewing, screaming sables. George, the remaining CIA agent, pops up to try and shoot Arkady but Osborne shoots him. Then – in a wild surprise – one of the more friendly KGB agents, Rurik, appears looming over Arkady with a gun. He, too, is shot dead by Osborne who is using a hunting rifle with a scope. Nobody who knows about the sables is going to be allowed to escape alive.

Except that, although shot himself, Arkady manages – like all thriller heroes – to have the luck, energy, stamina – and the author’s helping hand – to nail Osborne, by this stage epitome of decadent, capitalist greed and evil. He uncages the sables and as Osborne shouts ‘No’, flings one of the creatures at him and in that moment drops to his knees and fills Osborne full of lead. How very OK Corral the whole scene has been. How very American.

In the final pages Irina pleads with Arkady for him to stay in the Free World she has always dreamed about. No. I am a Russian. I am going home, says Arkady. Home to star in the five sequels Smith wrote to this classic, long, involving and thoroughly imagined masterpiece.

Style

American prose is quicker, American writers pack more information into their sentences and paragraphs. At its worst – as in a lot of contemporary US fiction – this means depth or resonance of language or psychology disappear from the texts which become, as a result, worthless. But, at their best, American writers are confident to skip, jump and compress language to get to the nub of the matter without a lot of the preliminary throat-clearing and harumphing which (older) British writers mistakenly think of as ‘fine writing’.

In this respect Smith is a poet. He continually reminded me of the English poet WH Auden for the insouciance with which he throws off casually striking metaphors and imagery in snappy sentences, dense with charged similes and metaphors.

Levin caught up at the elevator and slipped into the car with Arkady. He had been a chief surgeon in Moscow until Stalin shook Jewish doctors out of the trees. He held his emotions like gold in a fist. (p.13)

Almost all Russia is old, graded by glaciers that left a landscape of low hills, lakes and rivers that wander like the trails of worms in soft wood. (p.120)

After Kirwill beats Arkady up in the park –

Arkady pulled himself out of a drift and staggered, holding  his chest. Trees and snow sucked him down to a stone wall… Truck lights sailed along the sweep of the quay road. He could see no one walking. No militiamen. Streetlamps were furry balls, like the bubbles of air he gagged down. (p.64)

Sometimes a wind catches a parade banner and the face painted on the banner, with no change in expression, shivers. In Osborne’s eyes Arkady saw such a tremor. (p.148)

In the communications room, two sergeants with loosened collars typed out radio messages that came in snatches, bits and ends, invisible litter from the outside world. (p.178)

By about half way through (in an evolution which reminded me of something similar which happens, as the tension builds up, in Ira Levin’s thrillers) Smith’s style allows itself to become more and more impressionistic and poetic. Frederick Forsyth, say, remains journalistic to the end, reporting clinically, factually, accurately. But in the fight in the bloody pond which ends part one, throughout the dazed diary entries of Arkady’s long painful recovery in part two, and then in the intense final scenes set in a New York as seen by a complete outsider to everything western or American, Smith’s prose is liable to splinter into intensely imagined, hallucinatory fragments.

Pribluda was the one man who didn’t speak, the one who was content with silent menace, a warted brooding under wetted hair. (p.266)

Arkady said nothing. Over the field were the triumphant screams of small birds mobbing a crow; they were like a bar of music moving through the air. (p.277)

The fire was unpredictable. One bush would catch slowly like a biscuit of fuses. (p.283)

The density of a lot of the language, its charge and intensity, the clipped brevity with which it throws out drastic insights, radical perceptions, added to the complexity of the plot, make for an intense and – unusually for a thriller – sometimes quite a difficult read. Difficult to read at speed. And worth rereading whole sections, maybe in a year or two, the whole book.

The movie

The book was quickly turned into a movie (1983), directed by Michael Apted with a screenplay by Dennis Potter. William Hurt is well-cast as the flat, unemotional Arkady, Lee Marvin is charismatic as the rich killer Jack Osborne, Brian Dennehy is big and mean as William Kirwill and Joanna Pacuła is pretty but unconvincing as Irina Asanova. There is an enjoyable supporting cast of British character actors including Ian McDiarmid, Michael Elphick and Ian Bannen.

Like all movies, this one massacres the plot of its source novel, completely deleting part two where Arkady recovers from his knife wound – there is no fight in the university pool and no wound -and transferring the final section from New York – where Kirwill is at home and shows Arkady round, which thus balances the Kirwill-in-Moscow scenes – to the much cheaper and easier-to-film-in countryside around Stockholm. The whole thing screams ‘limited budget’.

The direction is flat, not one frame stands out for beauty or care of composition, it often has the rough ‘that’s good enough’ feel of a TV adaptation. The music, by James Horner, starts with an effective and chilling set of stabbing rattles on some kind of bamboo-sounding percussion, but the majority of the film is disfigured by the fashionable 1980s sound of thumping synthesised drums and banal one-note synthesiser rock, until the final ‘heartbreaking’ scenes of Arkady parting from Irina are served up in a syrup of sub-Doctor Zhivago strings. Judge for yourself.


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’.

%d bloggers like this: