Martin Cruz Smith introduced Arkady Renko in Gorky Park in 1982 as a Moscow detective, when Moscow was still the capital of the Evil Empire. He brought him back three more times in succeeding years, as the world changed. In this fifth novel, Renko is an investigator for the Moscow prosecutor, investigating fraud and corruption among the new Russian oligarchs.
[The following may contain minor spoilers.]
The story is that the head of a financial empire leaps to his death from his apartment, for no apparent reason. The dead man had been a promising physicist in the old Russia, and had become a successful businessman—as corrupt as many. His closet was full of salt. At the risk of spoiling the story, his apartment was radioactive—someone had put a few grains of cesium in the salt, and has been tormenting the deceased this way for weeks. The dead man’s lieutenant is later found dead on the outskirts of Chernobyl, which leads Renko to the dead zone around the reactor site, north of Kiev, looking for the connections between the dead men, the dead zone and the 1986 nuclear accident.
In the dead zone, he encounters brutal and corrupt police, scavengers and old Ukranian peasants trying to hold on to their lives on the land, at the end of their years. The land and the wildlife, in spite of the radiation, are making a comeback, to the delight of a sinister ecologist.
Smith’s understanding of Russia is more likely based on literature and news than on close contact with the land and the people, but he is conscientious and respectful. He fills his narrative with geographic and historical details. While he has several stock characters, he avoids stereotypes. Renko was a mildly exotic detective in 1982—honest, a little idealistic in a brutal and corrupt system, hoping for better, daring to care. In 2004, after years of corruption and violence, he still dares to hope.
Smith is a superior writer. His non-Renko novels, for instance Stallion Gate and Rose are good, and the Renko series is solidly written. This particular book has most of the strengths of his other work—solid characters, a vivid sense of place, a carefully-developed plot. The murder method and some plot elements of this book are a little over the top. On the other hand, Smith’s visualization of the dead zone is dramatic and thoughtful. It isn’t among his best books, but it is a solid part of the series.