I want to go to Siberia. Words I never thought I’d write. That is the power of a first-rate crime novel. It immerses you in its surroundings with visceral immediacy. It makes you want to see for yourself. Perhaps more than any other genre, crime fiction is often defined by its spirit of place. The city or setting must be a character in itself. Martin Cruz Smith understands this better than most.
Thirty-eight years ago, with 1981’s Gorky Park, Smith became a literary superstar as he introduced the world to Moscow detective Arkady Renko. Released at the height of the Cold War, that first Renko novel went to number one on the New York Times bestseller list. It spawned a film adaptation a few years later starring William Hurt. The second installment in the Renko series, 1989’s Polar Star, also went to number one on the Times list. The third, 1992’s Red Square, unfolded around the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Smith, an American raised and educated around Philadelphia, had by this time established himself as the chronicler of Russian crime fiction in the English-speaking world. When the Soviet era crumpled, the series might have understandably wrapped as a Cold War trilogy, but Arkady Renko lived on.
Though he does not appear to have aged in real time, The Siberian Dilemma (Simon & Schuster) marks the ninth in the series—and finds Renko as dogged and as vital as ever. In Gorky Park, he was already a “chief investigator.” Even allowing for the possibility that a Moscow cop could have achieved that rank at an improbably young age, almost forty years later, Renko should have been put out to pasture by now. Instead, there is no mention of his age, beyond the acknowledgment of a long career, and having maybe lost a step to the younger, nastier folks he encounters.
His love life certainly does not match a man who, by the calendar, should be past seventy at this point. Indeed, it’s his love life that drives the plot. He’s got it bad for the fearless journalist, Tatiana Petrovna, the namesake of the last Renko book, 2013’s Tatiana, inspired by the real-life Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006. Fortunately, her fictional stand-in remains alive and hell-bent on exposing her country’s corruption.
Befitting a Russian ice queen, Tatiana does not cater to the lovesick Arkady. Her career as a muckraking reporter—some might say with a death wish—takes precedence over any romantic interest. When she doesn’t show up as planned on a train back to Moscow, Renko can’t resist. His damsel must be in distress. He’s off to Siberia, where Tatiana is immersed in a feature on oil oligarchs and the political prisoners that have long filled Siberia’s notorious prisons.
Not that she needs his help. When he arrives, surprising her at a black-tie beauty pageant, Tatiana is not exactly thrilled to see him. She’s standing between two billionaire subjects of her article. She might be standing a little too close to one. When they manage to slip away for a private reunited chat, the stilted exchange makes you pity Renko’s over-exposed heart.
“You know,” he says, “you’re a very difficult person to be in love with. Why didn’t you answer my calls?”
“I thought it was too… dangerous.”
Her ellipses speak volumes.
While this latest Renko novel won’t rank with his earlier greats—the coincidences that propel the plot are just a few too many—it hardly matters. This is a book about place as much as character or storyline. And what a place Smith unveils. He’s done his homework. It is a land at the brutal extremes of our planet. A land of grozny—a Russian word “which meant in equal parts awesome and terrible.” It’s a place where a shaman’s ritual seems as reasonable as any cure, a frozen landscape inhabited by supernatural creatures. Or as Smith writes:
This was where strange things happened and stranger things were just around the corner… It was a zone on the edge where planes of existence overlapped. Nothing was inexplicable.
Siberia—if the oligarchs don’t get you, the bears just might.
The Siberian Dilemma is available for preorder now and for purchase on November 5.
About Martin Cruz Smith:
Martin Cruz Smith is a bestselling American mystery novelist. He is best known for his nine-novel series on Russian investigator Arkady Renko, introduced in Smith’s 1981 novel, Gorky Park. He has twice won a Dashiell Hammett Award from the North American Branch of the International Association of Crime Writers, as well as a Gold Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers’ Association. Smith lives in San Rafael, California, with his family.