Sunday, October 15, 2006

Renko and the New Russia

Here's a worthy paperback we missed when it came out earlier this year:

From his first appearance, in 1981's Gorky Park, through his last, Havana Bay in 1999, Arkady Renko has been the perfect dark mirror of his time and place in history -- the replacement of Cold War Russia by what passes now for a more democratic and capitalist society.

Martin Cruz Smith's police detective has certainly paid the price for his obstinate loyalties to truth and justice during those years, suffering physical and psychological trauma in a withering variety of settings. He is as out of place in the so-called New Russia as "an ape encountering fire," as he thinks when he sees a sleek new computer.

"Stop using the phrase 'New Russian' when you refer to a crime," his superior tells him wearily. "We're all New Russians, aren't we?"

"I'm trying," Renko replies, and in his own way he is. When powerful billionaire Pasha Ivanov (a man photographed often with world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, "who, as usual, seemed to suck on a sour tooth"), commits suicide, Renko just wants to do a thorough job of investigating. When he takes the sadly silent and badly damaged 11-year-old boy he has volunteered to provide some entertainment for to a big charity event thrown in the dead man's honor, he is finally taken off the case.

But the dogged Renko follows a clue to Chernobyl--the Ukranian city where a nuclear disaster in 1986 began Old Russia's downfall and frightened the world into some semblance of sanity. Chernobyl is now a radioactive wasteland, and Ivanov's business successor has been found with his throat slit and his face eaten by wolves in a cemetery inside Chernobyl's Zone of Exclusion--an area inhabited by a strange band of scientists, soldiers and some dysfunctional citizens who risk their health to live in its abandoned houses and apartments. A reading on Renko's radioactivity detector taken at a small amusement park "shot the needle off the dial."

As he did in his second Renko outing, Polar Star, in which the detective is punished with one of the world's nastiest and most grueling jobs aboard a fish-processing ship, Smith manages to make the horrors of Chernobyl almost a redeeming experience--for Renko and for us. As Renko searches for the truth about the two murders he's investigating, he seems to single-handedly be trying to tell us that Russia and its people, New or Old, are worth the effort.