Smith writes with a dry wit and a droll eye for characterisation — you will love Renko’s Siberian sidekick, Bolot, a man extremely useful in a crisis — but there’s anger and fear here too. Anger at the corruption at the heart of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and fear over what can happen when you dare to challenge it. Renko is a man constantly steering a course between the two extremes. It’s no wonder he’s as melancholic as a Siberian winter.
Renko first appeared in Gorky Park, set in Moscow in 1981. That standout thriller, with its vivid portrayal of Soviet-era sloth and corruption, interweaved with a murder and a poignant love story, outlasted the Soviet Union. Eight books later, so has Renko, one of the most appealing figures in modern thriller writing. Perhaps that’s because he is still a good man in a dangerous place: Putin’s Russia, where oligarchs can be as deadly as the KGB. The Siberian Dilemma (Simon and Schuster, RRP£16.99) is Cruz Smith at his best: ace storytelling with dry, laconic dialogue and a crumpled but courageous hero.
Renko himself seems diminished, appearing to have little control over his professional or private life. His journalist girlfriend, Tatiana, has been out of touch in Siberia for weeks, and Renko jumps at the chance when his boss offers a pretext to follow her there, leading to a series of surreal turns involving bear hunts, shamans and assassinations. It’s all a bit lacklustre and says little we don’t already know about Putin’s Russia.
If this is a Martin Cruz Smith mystery, we must be in Moscow, maybe in Gorky Park. But in a thrilling change of pace, The Siberian Dilemma takes us out of the city and into Russia’s untamed wilderness in search of a journalist who’s gone missing while on a dangerous, perhaps foolhardy, assignment. The case is of special importance to Smith’s detective, Arkady Renko, because the reporter, Tatiana Petrovna, is his lover. Tatiana’s boss, Sergei Obolensky, publisher of the newsmagazine Russia Now, laughingly dismisses Arkady as an anxious boyfriend, but Arkady is well aware of the dangers facing Russian journalists. If it isn’t a cup of poisoned tea today, it could be a shot between the eyes tomorrow.... The plot diffuses into several subplots, but so long as we keep our sights on Arkady, everything makes perfect sense. Smith’s lucid prose, surprising imagery and realistic dialogue, as well as his wonderfully quirky characters, all serve his engrossing storytelling. But in the end what linger in your mind are the voices — of people who never knew they had so much to say and never dreamed their voices mattered.
Gorky Park author Martin Cruz-Smith’s deftness of touch, lightness of humour and depth of knowledge are on display as ever in The Siberian Dilemma, his ninth novel featuring Moscow investigator Arkady Renko. This time, Arkady is sent to Siberia by his corrupt boss – “just when he thought he had eluded the snake, the snake swallowed him a little bit more” – to deal with what Zurin, his superior, says is a Chechen terrorist. As ever, the case may not be all it seems, but Arkady has reasons of his own for wanting to get to Irkutsk – his lover, Tatiana Petrovna, a journalist sent there on assignment, appears to have vanished while investigating an oligarch. “Let me get it straight,” his partner Victor says. “You propose going into the world’s largest landmass, most of it frozen, in search of someone who may not want to be found? … Would you like me to write your obituary today or tomorrow?”