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Wolves Eat Dogs sees the return of Russian Investigator, Arkady Renko. Once again out of favour he finds himself banished to the ghost town of Chernobyl to investigate the murder of a high profile Russian billionaire.
Although he has occasionally tinkered with other characters, Martin Cruz Smith constantly returns to Renko. It's easy to see why: Renko has everything you want for a thriller - a stubborn, awkward personality he makes enemies more easily than friends; yet he is tenacious enough to get to the bottom of any mystery, no matter how complex.
When Communism collapsed, Cruz Smith faced a problem: Renko was very much a product of his time - someone who was both part of the Communist structure (albeit on a small scale) but also rebelling against it (again on a small scale). So, what to do when that raison d'être was removed? Some authors might have left the character behind and moved on; others might have tried to change him (and weakened him in the process). Thankfully, Renko's defining characteristic has always been fish out of water. So, he is just as much on an outsider in the New Russia, as he was under the Communist regime. In other words, it's business as usual for Cruz Smith. The times might have changed, but his main character hasn't. Wolves has an instantly familiar feel if you have read his previous adventures.
It's characters which are one of Cruz Smith's strong points. Renko should be deeply unlikeable. To the outside world, he is uncommunicative, terse and lacks people skills. Yet, because we witness events through his eyes and are privy to his innermost thoughts, we are able to build up a greater understanding of what makes him tick and understand how his background has shaped who he is. Renko is not just a detective; he is a damaged and complex man, someone who has been beaten down by life, yet still fights for every inch. Rather than dislike him, Cruz Smith forces you to admire his tenacity.
The same is true of the other characters in this book, too. Virtually everyone is multi-layered and complex. Some are openly obstructive and hostile to Renko, some misleadingly helpful, whilst others appear to like him at least a little. Yet, it would be overly simplistic to try and assign specific attributes to each character. They shift allegiance according to their interests and agendas, drip-feeding Arkady information to assist or bamboozle his investigations according to how they will best profit. Thanks to this complex web of self-interest, the reader is never quite sure who can be trusted, which in turn provides some justification for Renko's mild paranoia.
The setting of Renko novels have also been a key part of his adventures. The grim, oppressive environments suit both his personality and his sordid investigations. Chernobyl proves to be a particularly inspired choice - the grey and deadly landscapes, the looming shadow of the ruined reactor and the tragic facts behind the place perfectly suit the sombre tone of the book. Cruz Smith provides some very vivid descriptions of The Zone, making it clear what a desolate place it is. At the same time, the novel is not unremittingly bleak and there are brief moments of hope which lighten the otherwise dark tone.
Strong characters and good locations would not compensate for a weak plot and Cruz Smith delivers one as complex and satisfying as ever. There are plenty of twists and turns, so that just when you think you have worked it all out, it shifts away, defying expectations and leading you to re-evaluate what you know. Since we find out information at the same time as Renko, you can pit your wits against his to see if you can solve the mystery before him... although it is so rambling and complex that you should give yourself a big pat on the back if you succeed. At the same time, you always know why Renko is doing what he is, of how one clue has led to another. Even if you don't know all the whys and wherefores, the general shape of the plot always remains clear, so you never feel bewildered. There's also a satisfying ending which ties up the main strands, but leaves just enough loose ends flapping to imitate real life, where everything isn't always resolved by the "final page."
On the downside, the unremittingly bleak tone and complex plot will not be to everyone's taste. Some will find it too grim and depressing; others will find the plot boring or overly complex, getting lost in the myriad of red herrings. It's also not a book to read if you have not read previous Renko novels. Whilst it is possible to read as a standalone book, Renko has developed throughout the series and, to understand the man he is today, you need to understand where he has come from and the hurts he has already experienced. This insight can only fully be gained from reading the books chronologically. Past events are only obliquely referred to and may leave new readers even more confused. Certainly the assumption on the part of the author appears to be that you already know Renko's history.
Some people also feel that the sub-plot (involving Renko's relationship with a mysterious young boy), goes nowhere and remains frustratingly unresolved. There is an element of truth in this. Yet, to me, the sub-plot felt appropriate, and its on-going nature well-handled, steering clear of an overly "happy ending" (which would be at odds with Renko's character and the tone of the book), whilst not disposing of this plot element in an overly convenient way.
Despite the collapse of Communism, Renko lives on, and that's appropriate, because he has always been a survivor. Both Wolves Eat Dogs and Havana Bay show there is still plenty of life left in the grumpy, anti-social investigator and that a good character remains a good character wherever you put him.
Wolves Eat Dogs
Martin Cruz Smith
© Copyright SWSt 2010
Wolves eat dogs is the fourth novel to feature Arkady Renko, Soviet Chief Investigator and hero of Gorky Park. It follows on from events in that book, Polar Star and Red Square and sees Renko facing a "bright new Russia" after the fall of The Iron Curtain. But though things may have changed on the surface, deep down on the street the same problems and prejudices survive. There is still as much emphasis on manipulating the truth as there ever was and it isn't long before Renko is treading on thin ice once again.....and not for the first time!
Reminiscent of Polar Star in so many ways, you will see why as you read this review, this latest novel starts as that book did with an apparent suicide. Except this time around there is no dead blonde bombshell but a corrupt Russian businessman and the crime scene is not a Russian trawler but an apartment building on the rich side of town where security is as tight as it possibly can be. Pasha Ivanov is found face-down on the pavement outside his building after a fall from several storeys. Cameras reveal no evidence of anyone else entering or leaving his apartment and it all seems like an open and shut case much to the pleasure of Prosecutor Zurin who was having Ivanov investigated just before his death. But Renko's curiosity is intrigued when he discovers large traces of salt scattered about the apartment and a Radioactive Dossimeter hidden in a closet drawer. Was someone trying to drive Pasha to suicide or is he just making something out of nothing? Arkady knows which option Zurin would prefer but, like a dog with a bone, he refuses to let go. And when Pasha Ivanov's business partner later turns up dead in a small village deep in the heart of Chernobyl's infamous exclusion zone, you know that the Chief Investigator is once more destined to be exiled where he can't cause any trouble. Just as he was pretty much exiled when he found himself aboard The Polar Star.
This is another complex and convoluted thriller from a highly successful author but the only thing that truly makes it stand out in my mind, is it's setting just outside Chernobyl. Like many others, I know some of the salient facts behind The Chernobyl Disaster but was unaware of the deeper issues until I read this book. Not only does it provide a little background but also the novel reveals some of the longer, lasting consequences of Russia's failed nucleur reactor and what life is like for those people assigned to research what was left behind in the disaster's wake. Secrets and lies are once more prevalent and there is a familiar sense of Arkady Renko being persona non grata and unfortunately, this only served to leave me with a feeling of de ja vu. That is not to say that this is a bad book, because it is not, only that there is very little here that left me feeling inspired!
I am not a big fan of Martin Cruz Smith's writing style either and some of the dialogue in this novel often feels a bit stilted and forced. This is a trait that Cruz seems unable to remedy and, though the concept is clever, this really is a book that shares occassional moments of clumsiness with the reader. I got the feeling that Smith returned to the woprld of Renko simply because he wanted to cash in on a popular character and could re-hash old ideas in a new vision of an old world! Certainly the use of Chernobyl and it's surrounding towns is original and inspired, and to the best of my knowledge has not been done before, but there really isn't much more than that going for this thriller that ended on a climax that left me slightly dissappointed!
If you see it cheap on Amazon or Ebay and enjoyed any of the other books, you should probably give it a go. Don't however be expecting too much here as this is otherwise a very decidely average thriller with no satisfying conclusion!
The latest of Smith's thrillers about honest Russian cop Arkady Renko, Wolves Eat Dogs has a memorably spooky opening as Renko prowls the apartment of one of the men who has done well out of privatization and neo-capitalism and has suddenly jumped out of a tenth floor window. The dead man's cupboard is full of salt and he was clutching a salt-shaker when he died--no-one wants to investigate madness, but Renko suspects that there is more to it than that. When the dead man's partner turns up with his throat cut in a cemetery in the Ukraine, his bosses get him out of their hair by sending him to investigate--in the overgrown deserted towns and returning woodlands around the radioactive ruins of the Chernobyl power plant. A place full of deadly legacies and ruined hopes is just the sort of place where Renko feels at home, and where secrets are as common as giant mutant catfish. The mystery is less impressive here than the atmosphere--Smith gives the attentive reader more clues than merely playing fair demands--but with atmosphere so intense that hardly matters.