If you’ve never met Arkady Renko, erstwhile Soviet and now Russian cop, his most recent set of cases, this time in Asia—well, Siberia, to be exact—is as good an opportunity as any to finally become acquainted.
Arkady Renko is, of course, the creation of Martin Cruz Smith, who began the series with Gorky Park almost 40 years ago. Renko seems not to have aged as much as the rest of us have. The Siberian Dilemma has all the tension, sympathetic characterization and research-based verisimilitude that Smith displayed right from the first novel.
The novel opens with Arkady leveling a bear that had been let out of its cage at the Moscow zoo. The opening both telegraphs a theme and sets up an extended metaphor: those who had released the bear and his mate left a poster declaring “We Are Animals Too”.
Arkady ends up in Siberia—Irkutsk and Chita, both near Lake Baikal—ostensibly to bring to justice a Chechen who allegedly took a shot at Arkady’s boss. But the ever-wistful interrogator’s primary objective is to chase after his investigative journalist girlfriend Tatiana Petrova, who was herself chasing a profile of oligarch Mikhail Kuznetsov, who has decided to run for President against Vladimir Putin. Tatiana hadn’t returned as expected and had gone incommunicado.
On the way, Arkady picks up a “factotum”, Rinchin Bolot, a Buryat. It turns out that Arkady didn’t have as much to worry about regarding the state of Tatiana’s health as her affections, and the Chechen had been framed. Another oligarch, Boris Benz, also shows up and competes for Arkady’s attention. He had been a prison-mate of Kuznetsov; the two are now frenemies, a particularly combustible configuration when there’s Siberian oil at play.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that shots are fired, things blow up and that there is lots of snow and more bears: this is a crime novel and the setting is Siberia.
Notwithstanding the standard disclaimer that “any resemblance to actual … persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental”, Mikhail Kuznetsov bears more than a passing resemblance to another oil tycoon named Mikhail who also entertained thoughts of running for President. Cruz has indeed admitted as much. But real-life only informs the novel; the differences are large enough to imply that there is no real attempt at portraiture.
Everyone in The Siberian Dilemma seems more urbane that one might expect of real life, even in Russia. Arkady finds echoes of Gogol in Kuznetsov; the Chechen channels Pushkin, Bolot his tribal heritage; a hired assassin who keeps bees. Even Saran, the half-Chinese, half-Buryat receptionist at the Admiral Kolchak Hotel, who braids ribbons into her hair, is considered a suitable interlocutor by rich-as-Croesus oligarchs.
But Smith’s research is telling. From Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal to the Montblanc Hotel (in reality the Monblan), what passes in Chita for a luxury hotel, and the large statue of Lenin in the eponymous square nearby, there is little doubt Smith has trod in at least some of his hero’s fictional footsteps.
Smith has a remarkable ability to evoke atmosphere with the simplest of language. Arkady is placed on a train after being injured:
“Ust-Kut,” said the providnitsa, “There’s a hospital in Ust-Kut.” Ust-Kut, a chant which the train’s wheels took up as they moved along the tracks. Ust-Kut, Ust-Kut, Ust-Kut.
Smith carefully sets up a scene several several chapters earlier to ensure we know what a providnitsa is: the female attendants on Russian trains who rule with tea and an iron will. Perhaps because Smith only rarely finds the need to be explicitly edifying (“‘Lake Baikal,” Benz called back. ‘Largest body of fresh water in the world.’”), the book, in its atmospheric and introspective way, perhaps is.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.