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Imagine the dilemma. You're a best selling author who has had most success with a maverick Russian investigator who bucks the Soviet System. Suddenly, the whole Soviet empire falls and your most popular character is stranded without a purpose. What do you do?
Well, if you're Martin Cruz Smith, the solution is simple: invent a pre-text to take your character (Arkady Renko) off to Communist Havana and have him investigate the murder of a Russian there. Problem solved!
It's a move which works surprisingly well. Taking a character out of their normal environment is always a risky business. It can alienate established readers by undermining their familiarity with the character, whilst not winning any new ones. With Renko, this is less of an issue. He has always been an outsider. He was a fish out of water under the Soviet system anyway, so transferring him to Cuba preserves, rather than destroys the character readers have come to know and love. In fact, it would probably have been a mistake to try and set a new Arkady novel in Russia, given the changes in the political landscape there. Landing in Havana, in a country where he doesn't speak the language or understand the customs makes him more of an outsider than ever and definitely adds to his character's appeal.
It's testament to Cruz Smith's writing ability that you actually care about Renko, as he's not the most likeable of characters. Often angry, selfish, rude and stubborn, the author also manages to make him vulnerable, human and easier to empathise with. All too often, lead characters in books are either wholly good or wholly evil, making them rather thin. Renko always feels like a fully fledged human being, with plenty of good points, as well as lots of faults.
Relocation also gives Cruz Smith the opportunity to introduce a range of new characters, although these are less well-shaded than the principal one. In particular, one of the key new characters is Ofelia, a Cuban police officer, struggling to balance her home and professional life. There's a pleasing relationship though between her and Renko - starting out from a position of mistrust and gradually moving on to mutual respect... although there is one aspect of her character arc that is frustratingly predictable (I'll leave you to guess what, but read many of my other reviews and you'll find a similar complaint.)
What's particularly pleasing is that you get a real sense that most of the main characters are real people with their own lives. You honestly get the impression that whilst you're off following one character, the others are still doing things which you don't see - they don't just stand still and come back into the plot when they're needed. Cruz Smith actually uses this as a plot device to good effect. Characters go off and investigate on their own, and you only find out the results of that later. Unlike most books, you're not an omnipotent character following everything at once. You can only follow one character at a time. This actually adds quite a bit to the book and almost makes you feel as if you are there. It also adds to the tension generated by a race against time to solve the mystery.
Havana Bay's plot is, on one level, a fairly traditional murder mystery - there's a body and Renko needs to find out whodunit. Yet, it's also a very intricate and complex plot. Blending a whole range of disparate subjects - forensics, politics, police investigations and religion - it's a fascinating mixture. The downside is that this doesn't necessarily make it easy to read at times. Because there are lots of different elements to remain aware of and get your head around, it can be a little tricky at times to work out exactly what is happening, or how the various parts relate to each other. Certainly, people used to "traditional" murder mysteries may find it frustrating; it's extremely unlikely you'll be able to work out the real culprit and their motive before the end of the book. It's not a book which presents the readers with all the clues and gives them a chance to solve it first; it's more one where you are along for the ride. Stick with it, though, because it's well worth it and the ending is quite surprising when it comes!
Complementing the intriguing and involving plot is Cruz Smith's style of writing. This might well divide people. Some people will find it full of superfluous descriptions or irrelevant details and become frustrated by the fact that this slows down the pace of the main narrative. Others will find it hugely evocative. Cruz Smith does an excellent job of building up an atmosphere and painting a picture of what life in Cuba must be like for rich and poor alike. It's clear that he has a lot of respect for Cuban life and Cuban culture, and has carefully researched the book so that his story can fit into a "real" Cuba, not one which only exists in his head. He also presents a more balanced view of Cuban life - concentrating on both positive and negative aspects. You might argue he revels a little too much in the seedier side of Cuban life, but in fairness, this probably reflects the subject of the book.
You would be strongly advised to read at least some of the previous Renko novels and not dive straight into this one. There is a definite assumption that you are a long term fan of the series, not a new reader. There is no attempt to explain who the character is, or to illuminate his back story. References to the events of previous novels are frequent, with no explanations given - prior knowledge is very definitely assumed. Pick this book up and try and read it as a standalone novel and you will find it a very frustrating experience. Read it as the latest in the series, though, and you will find it just as enjoyable as Renko's previous outings.
Martin Cruz Smith
Available second hand from Amazon from 1p
© Copyright SWSt 2008
Arkady Renko is definitely my favourite detective. It’s not because he’s unbelievably handsome or inhumanly clever, but mainly because he’s so painfully real. Unlike most fictional detectives, he is still working for the police (and a Russian one at that!), doesn’t stand out in a crowd (although by no means ugly) and most importantly doesn’t have gorgeous girls hoping in and out of his bed. He has a vague air of tragedy mixed with weary irony about him and apart from his shabby clothing and a somewhat different attitude to women, reminds mostly of Marlowe. Havana Bay, the fourth installation in the Renko saga (although you don’t have to read the previous three to understand what’s going on), takes him to Havana, the last stand of Communism, now abandoned by the Russians and crumbling to pieces. Arkady is summoned by an anonymous note to help find his old friend/ nemesis Prebluda, a former KGB spy, now stationed in Havana. He arrives just in time to identify Prebluda’s body floating, decomposing in the bay. Only Renko is not too sure it IS Prebluda and meanwhile most of the Cubans around him are trying to shorten his scheduled one-week stay by any means possible. At first indifferent and suicidal after the resent death of his beloved Irena (the only real connection to the previous books), he is slowly drawn into the investigation, trying to identify the body and understand why so many people want him dead or at least out of the way. His only ally in this seemingly hopeless quest is inspector Ofelia Osorio, who after initial suspicion and resentment towards ‘the Russian’, slowly comes to realise that beneath the shabby façade hides a razor sharp brain and an interesting man. Cruz Smith is excellent in building up atmosphere. He builds and almost tangible picure of the decaying Havana of brightly coloured buildings crumbling to dust, decades-old American cars still going strong, beautifu
l girls selling themselves to the flesh hungry tourists and above them all the almost mythical figure of Castro, never mentioned by name but whose presence is everywhere. The usual alienation of Renko from his surroundings is harsher here then ever, with the barriers of language, dress (he insists to wear a cashmere coat given to him by Irena despite the stifling heat), religion and colour. And yet he struggles on doggedly, up to the somewhat disappointing finale, making some friends and foes on the way and slowly coming to understand the baffling Cuban nature with its blend of music, magic and Communism. I’ve finished this 450-page novel in a week worth of tube rides and lunch brakes, which really says it all for its appeal. If you after an intelligent thriller which takes its time to build an atmosphere and is populated with multi-dimensioned, real characters, look no further.
The body, what was left of it, was drifting in Havana Bay the morning Arkady arrived from Moscow. The Cubans insisted that the body was his friend Pribluda, but Arkady wasn't so sure. The Communist world has shrunk to Cuba. Havana is a city of empty stones and talking drums, Karl Marx and sharp machetes - not welcoming place if you're a Russian, particularly if you're a Russian investigating the death of another Russian. But Arkady is used to being unpopular. He's even used to losing friends.