New Kid On The Bloc

Why not holiday in Chernobyl? Martin Cruz Smith
Menuez Pictures
Wolves Eat Dogs
Simon & Schuster

Two decades after Gorky Park demonstrated that the Russians loved their children too, post-Communist Eastern Europe has produced more than its share of Bond villains and so many coming-of-age novels that the genre has already ironized its conventions. Martin Cruz Smith, to his credit, has taken note of the competition, and Wolves Eat Dogs is a lesson in persistence; its steeped cynicism conveys the quality of feeling of a veteran Sovietologist, older and deeper than the disillusion of idealistic young'uns who put in a vodka-drenched post-collegiate year. It's also a lesson in craft, a satisfyingly accomplished entertainment that elegantly reveals how aptly hoary detective-novel tropes capture contemporary Russia.

Inspector Arkady Renko, still dumb enough to investigate after all these years, is sent to probe the apparent suicide of a "New Russian" tycoon, Pasha Ivanov, "both a man of his time and a stage in evolution." Ivanov summarizes how little and how much has changed since 1991: A former nuclear technician who now tools around town in the obligatory BMW-plus-SUV caravan (even though "chase cars were largely for form, like the retinue of a lord"), he subcontracts security to KGB alumni and hobnobs with Putin, Clinton, and the Orthodox patriarch. If indicted, he picks up his cell and has the law rewritten.

What follows is both expert and predictable, in the way good genre novels work. Arkady's superiors don't want things explored too deeply, various species of hired muscle issue threats, the case veers off into unexpected territory. The big issue here is Chernobyl, where Arkady somewhat involuntarily spends two-thirds of the book. (Exiled from Moscow by departmental politics, he's also following a lead.) Smith does a masterful job of evoking the surreal working conditions on the verge of the planet's deadest zone, as well as the remarkable persistence of a natural world recovering from even this catastrophe: "The trees had turned red--dead where they stood--the day after the accident. [Arkady] lifted his ear to the muffled flight of an owl and the soft explosion that marked the likely demise of a mouse. All of Chernobyl was reverting to nature." The mystery's resolution is more or less forgettable, but those blasted trees and poisoned cooling ponds, the posters of skaters and weightlifters in emptied buildings destined never to be torn down, stick in your mind.

This book may not travel well; contemporary Russians, who can damn well read the daily paper, demand Boris Akunin's escapist 19th-century mysteries. But to readers for whom this story is escapism, Smith's mourning for what's been done and what's being done, and the small measure of hope that glints at the end, feels moving, and even necessary.

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