Sometime, not too long after its publication in 1981, I read Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. Set in Cold War Moscow, it introduced Arkady Renko, a Moscow police detective. As I recall, this was the first book by Smith. It proved memorable. In some ways, Renko was like other cops: overworked, under-paid, and with plenty of personal problems. To this extent, he wasn’t unique among fictional police detectives. However, he worked in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, in the heart of the system. But the system didn’t work as the textbooks and propagandists said it did. Like everywhere else in the world, there was an underside, and Renko plunged into it.
So now, all these years later, for reasons I can’t justify other than my standard “so many books, so little time”, I rejoined Renko in Wolves Eat Dogs. In this installment of Renko’s career the ground has shifted. The Soviet Union is gone. Oligarchs now run Russia. And the remains of a failed nuclear plant at Chernobyl create a deep scar in the Ukrainian steppe. A fall from a seventh story window by one of the “New Russia” oligarchs leads Renko from Moscow to the forbidden (but not uninhabited) land of radioactivity created by the greatest nuclear disaster ever. Renko is nothing if not dogged, even if it takes him to this eerie land of death and fleeting life.
Like Ian Rankin, whom I recently reviewed, Smith creates a character and milieu that draws the reader in. Like Rankin, Smith’s prose creates enough literary quality to keep the reader careful without slowing the pace. Good detective fiction must walk the line between prose too easily parodied and prose too demanding of the reader. While other types of fiction can wander around with words and leave us wondering here and there, writers of detective fiction can’t afford this luxury—plot and resolution are too important. Smith, like Rankin, walks the line just about perfectly. In doing so, American and other readers get a sense of the Russian and Ukrainian land and culture in which Renko operates. This concern with scene on the part of good detective fiction heightens the enjoyment of this genre.
So Renko again? Definitely. I have some catching-up to do.