I have read and enjoyed Smith's previous Renko novels. Renko's erratic career path as a police inspector has seen him survive, barely, the apparatchiks of the Soviet regime (Gorky Park). He has survived its imminent demise (Polar Star) and the emergence of bloody cowboy capitalism (Red Square). Now, in Wolves Eat Dogs, Renko must operate in a Russia dominated by an elite group of billionaire oligarchs.
The primary setting of Wolves Eats Dogs is the 30-kilometer evacuation (or exclusion) zone in the northern Ukraine, just south of Ukraine's border with Belarus, surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. On April 26th, 1986 the number 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded after a planned test shutdown went seriously wrong. The subsequent release of radioactive material (cesium and strontium) is estimated to have reached levels exceeding 40 times the amount of radioactivity released by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The short and long term effects of this explosion, particularly on the Republics of Belarus and Ukraine has been devastating. For example, the phrase "Chernobyl Necklace" refers to the ubiquitous ear-to-ear scar worn by Byelorussians and Ukrainians that have had thyroid cancer surgery. The thyroid cancer rate is estimated to be up to 2000 times greater in Belarus than in the general world population. Smith's eye for details makes note of these scars. The Chernobyl disaster has special resonance for me as I have spent five years involved with a Children of Chernobyl program that brings children from Belarus to the United States for six week health and respite visits. The dark world that Martin Cruz Smith portrays in Wolves Eat Dogs tracks remarkably well with accounts I have heard from Byelorussians and Ukrainians about life after Chernobyl. Smith made numerous trips to the exclusion zone and his investment in time and first-hand research bears fruit. It is into that dark world that fate and police work brings Inspector Arkday Renko.
A billionaire oligarch, Pasha Ivanov, is found dead outside his high-rise Moscow flat. All evidence leads to the conclusion that Ivanov has taken his own life by jumping from his penthouse apartment. Renko is not so sure and decides to conduct his investigation despite the clear displeasure this evinces up and down the police ladder and amongst the surviving owners of Ivanov's company. In this, Renko's stubborn, principled independence has not changed at all since he first came to view in Gorky Park. When a second related death occurs in the 30-kilometer exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl, Renko's superiors are pleased to pack him off to investigate the death in the Ukraine. The majority of the action takes place in the exclusion zone. Renko plods on despite himself and despite attempts by virtually everyone to leave things alone.
It is impossible to say more without revealing too much of the plot. However, it seems to be that in Wolves Eat Dogs we have seen Martin Cruz Smith at his finest. Smith does not devote any time to fleshing out the personal side of Renko. However, the similarity between the inner-life of Renko and the stark, despairing, world of the exclusion zone is unmistakable. It is at once a moving and tragic reflection of the life lived by Arkady Renko. Smith's portrayal of Renko, life in the exclusion zone, and his development of the plot from start to finish is first rate. This is a book worth reading.
Arkady Renko is a pessimist; he thinks everything will go wrong. Arkady Renko is a realist; he believes everything will go wrong. Arkady Renko is a Russian; he knows everything will go wrong.
Way back in "Gorky Park", the first of Martin Cruz Smith's tales about the Moscow investigator, Arkady Renko was faced with crime and corruption hidden behind the mask of Soviet communism. In this latest novel, the Soviet Union is no more, but crime and corruption remain -- indeed, they are blossoming -- under the rabid capitalism of the New Russia. In "Wolves Eat Dogs" Renko investigates (well, he is offically ordered not to investigate) the death of Moscow's darling billionaire-of-the-moment, Pasha Ivanov, who threw himself, maybe, out of the window of his luxurious high-rise apartment, leaving behind anxious business partners, a young mistress, and a pile of salt in his closet.
Succeeding events lead Renko to "the Zone", the radioactive wasteland around Chernobyl in the Ukraine, a journey to a grim circle of hell straight out of Dante's Inferno, inhabited by the mad, the doomed, and the hopeless. Who else would eat food grown in radioactive earth and turn off dosimeters because their constant clicking is too distracting? Life there is very cheap, and death can be had at virtually no price at all. Yet, beneath all else, "Wolves Eat Dogs" is more than anything a story of redemption, never certain redemption but, ultimately, the undying possibility of redemption. Renko's descent to this nightmare of a real world makes for strongly compelling reading, arguably the best of the Renko books since "Gorky Park".
on November 16, 2004
Martin Cruz Smith's Russian detective Arcady Renko began his career discovering bodies in Soviet Gorky Park, went on the lam on the Soviet fishing trawler Polar Star, came back to the force to follow a crime to Havana Bay, and now, he takes on the New Russia, where different wolves eat dogs. Pasha Ivanko is one of those wolves who made the transition from communism to the free market with brazen success, but now he lies smashed on the pavement in front of his luxury apartment building with nothing but a salt shaker to break his fall. In fact, when called to investigate, Arkady finds salt scattered throughout Ivanko's designer digs. His superiors tell him to write it off as a suicide, but somehow he can't. Why would someone who had embraced the new order as gleefully as Pasha kill himself, and what is it with this salt? The murder of Pasha's business partner in neighboring Ukraine earns Arkady a trip to Chernobyl's Zone of Exclusion with its eerie abandoned city still shimmering with radioactivity.
The number of people who died in the 1986 nuclear explosion at Chernobyl is not known, nor is it known how many will die in the decades to come. The Zone of Exclusion is supposed to be completely de-populated except for scientists who are rotated in and out. Arkady discovers that the Zone is in fact quite a busy place with a variety of scavengers, entrepreneurs, elderly farm folk and fearless radioactive wild animals calling the place home. Smith loves to put the ironic but big-hearted Renko in surreal environments and this one is certainly one of the weirdest. Solving murders is one thing, but solving them while keeping one eye on radioactive warning signs is really something else. And just in case we've forgotten, the legacy of Chernobyl continues to spread in the form of radioactive bits and pieces scavenged from Chernobyl and sold across the world.
The plot is taut and the writing is sharp. In his other Renko novels, Smith worked to shave away Russia's layers of artiface until we could see what really lay below. With such rich material as post-communist Russia, it's a shame that "Wolves Eat Dogs" is a little short in that department, but still, book does not disappoint. With this harrowing tale, Martin Cruz Smith continues to be one of the most accomplished and compelling mystery writers working today.
There is something so calming and pleasurable when reading Renko novels. I think it is a combination of the author's style of writing and the phlegmatic nature of Arkady Renko himself. I started this book a few nights ago after finishing a very so-so novel. When I cracked this book and started reading, the first four lines hit me like a Mack truck. The writing was so beautiful and compelling I was mesmerized. The difference between what I had been drudging through before, and this work of art, couldn't have been more brutally stark. Martin Cruz Smith is a master of his trade, a genius, and you can tell from the very first sentence. I loved this book; it was very rewarding on so many levels.
First there is Arkady himself. What a wonderful protagonist and how mastefully created! There are no heavy-handed characterizations in a Smith novel. We learn who Arkady is by listening to his thoughts, seeing him interact with others, and observing how he deals with situations. Do we know what he looks like? No. Is he big or little? Muscular or fat? No idea. Does it matter? Not a bit. That is the best writing, when the author does not insult you with heavy-handed descriptions he simply tells a story and you learn to identify with his characters by their actions. Arkady is a wonderful character, deeply sympathetic, and I love following him around and watching him doggedly and calmly work a case despite the abuse, unfairness, corruption, indifference, maliciousness, and spite of those he must deal with to do so. The man takes beatings physically, mentally, and psychically with stoicness and calm and then he just gets up and keeps going. Partly Russian fatalism, partly his own nature, Arkady is a normal person who just keeps going where nearly everyone else would give up, yet there is no ego in it. It's just Arkady.
In this book Arkady must determine why a billionaire jumped to his death with a salt shaker. Was it suicide? Or something more sinister? And what's up with the salt shaker? And the pile of salt in the closet? This mystery was baffling to me (and Arkady for awhile) but the answers when they come are rewarding. It's a great mystery. Arkady must follow the case ultimately to Chernobyl and the descriptions and history and culture of the place and event are fascinating. In fact, the depictions of Chernobyl, the background you get, the people you meet there, what you learn of what it's like there right now will just amaze you.
This book has it all; wonderful writing, one of literature's great characters, a great mystery, a worthwhile setting, great plot, and superbly done characters. Get this book, read it, and enjoy yourself! This one is a winner.
on January 7, 2005
Another reviewer has remarked that "Wolves Eat Dogs" is set in "the radioactive wasteland around Chernobyl," a "grim circle of hell straight out of Dante's Inferno." Yes, and there is also in this novel the magical and strange mood of dark folklore and myth. Arkady, the mordant knight-errant, travels in the land of Baba Yaga, the witch of Russian folklore.
In the radioactive rubble, an old man and his wife, a woman with steel teeth, tend an unruly cow, fishermen pull mutant catfish from a "cooling pond," and stuffed bears and dolls are the only occupants of broken houses in the black villages.
The innocent child of the Baba Yaga tale finds salvation through kind acts. In Smith's allegory it is hard to find innocence, but kind acts indeed happen.
A corrupt American businessman and an ancient Jewish hit man, "a black angel," flee the Zone to escape the police, but on their way out stop to don yarmulkes and shawls and chant the Kaddish over and over again near the "black hole" of the Chernobyl power station. Arkady thinks they are too late, but the old hit man nods as if to say they are fine.
Another character, Eva, is almost a parody of her ancient and innocent sister, Eve. She is a woman made infertile by the surgeons who have cut out tumors caused by her exposure to radioactivity. She is bitterly damaged, but still she selflessly submits to rape in an attempt to bargain for Arkady's life.
Like the bumpkin knight Parsifal, Arkady first fails to "get it." He misunderstands Eva's sacrifice and turns his back on her when she needs him most. He tries to avoid a silent child, an orphan, who can't express his need for Arkady's love.
Arkady unravels the murder mystery that started him on his quest, but doesn't understand the possibility of his own redemption until near the end. In the airport in Kiev, back in the "real world" occupied by families and children, Arkady has a chance encounter with a mobster on the lam. There is a decision to make. Arrest him or not?
Read the novel.
Perhaps cynical Arkady, the world-weary cop, is ironically the most innocent of all the characters. Like a character in a story by Hawthorne, he must learn to join the brotherhood of sinners.
This isn't just another detective novel. This is a literate novel rich in characterizations, imagery, and theme. Who cares who dunnit?
Although I read and enjoyed GORKY PARK a number of years ago, I confess up front to not being a particular fan of "spy thrillers" generally or Martin Cruz specifically. I simply purchased WOLVES EAT DOGS (at a bookstore in mainland China) as an airplane read for the 15-hour flight from Shanghai to Chicago. It served its purpose in what I can best call workmanlike fashion, helping pass the time but rarely grabbing my attention in the manner of great suspense novels.
In WOLVES EAT DOGS, Smith relies on his trusty war horse, the loner police detective Arkady Renko, to carry us through the mystery of a wealthy man's suicide and another's unsolved throat-slitting in the Zone of Exclusion, the radioactively hot district surrounding Chernobyl. The story opens with the death of fabulously wealthy industrialist Pasha Ivanov, an apparent suicide by jumping from the window of his high rise apartment. Inexplicably, Pasha is found on the street holding a salt shaker, and Arkady discovers a 50-pound mound of salt in Pasha's bedroom closet. The authorities are quick to write the death off as a suicide, but the irrepressibly dogged Renko cannot bring himself to let go. When Pasha's successor to the helm of the NoviRus conglomerate, Lev Timofeyev, turns up murdered near Chernobyl, Renko is dispatched and more or less exiled to that hell on Earth. Needless to say, the plodding and methodical detective forges ahead with his investigation and, with the help of a renegade American name Bobby Hoffman and the requisite doctor-eventually-turned-love-interest Eve Kazka, eventually solves the mystery. Unfortunately, the resolution is both murky and frustratingly anti-climactic, a paltry reward for slogging through the sometimes confusing twists and turns of a thriller that never thrills.
Throughout the story, Smith runs a subplot involving Renko's "Big Brother" relationship with a semi-autistic young orphan boy named Zhenya. A chess wizard and potentially a math genius, Zhenya connects with Renko through a series of methodical, repetitive outings that parallel Renko's own investigative methods. Their formal, emotionless relationship also mimics the detective's own arm's length style of interaction with most of the rest of the world. Zhenya's inability to speak or connect with others may perhaps also be taken as a symbol of life in post-Soviet Russia, where people have been cut loose from their cultural and historical moorings and left to fend for themselves in a free-wheeling and nearly lawless new world of capitalist free enterprise. By the end, however, the notion of Renko moving forward with an ad hoc family of damaged goods - himself emotionally damaged, Eve physically damaged by terminal illness, and the autistic Zhenya - seems more maudlin than therapeutic.
Without doubt, the most interesting aspect of WOLVES EAT DOGS is its seemingly realistic depiction of life in the Zone of Exclusion. The scenario is post-Apocalyptic, a nuclear dead zone without the blast destruction that could find a home in an updated version of Dante's Inferno. The characters who populate the Zone are straight out of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, mixed with a few Russian peasants borrowed from the shtetls of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. The combination is curiously effective, providing a chilling glimpse of life as it might appear following a muclear holocaust. The fact that these lost souls, doomed as they are to suffer painful radiation-related deaths, demonstrate more life and personality than Detective Renko, speaks volumes about Smith's tired, emotionally exhausted character. Even the affectless Zhenya shows more life and personality. While this may have been an intentional literary device, it too often makes reading WOLVES EAT DOGS about as exciting as reading a police detective's training manual. Imagine watching RAIN MAN without the Tom Cruise character, just following Dustin Hoffman around in his disattached daily affairs.
On balance, WOLVES EAT DOGS is a serviceable mystery/suspense novel, but hardly a gripping page turner. For a long-flight airplane read, I recommend looking elsewhere unless you want something to help you sleep.
on November 28, 2004
Many of the mystery/thriller writers who specialized in Cold War scenarios have had a hard time making the transition to the New World Order (can anyone look forward to a new John LeCarre with other than mixed feelings?). Not so Martin Cruz Smith. His Arkady Renko has managed the transition to a post-Soviet world with remarkable grace & continues to intrigue us with both a fascinating series of cases and a degree of humanity that is usually lacking in the thriller genre -I can't help feeling that I would actually LIKE Renko if I met him. Added to this is Martin Cruz Smith's excellent eye for detail & real grasp of the landscape. In this outing Renko moves from Moscow to the Exclusion Zone around the Chernobyl reactors, and we plunge with him into a world where death comes in a variety of flavors and forms as the action flows through not-so-abandoned villages, and a countryside where nuclear devastation lies next to almost surreal beauty. I won't spoil the book with any more plot hints, I do confess however that it lost a star in the very last chapter -I am still trying to decide if I can believe the last murderer- but shall we say that I started this book in San Jose, barely noted the plane change in Denver, and closed the cover in Boston having barely noticed one of the bumpier flights that I have yet taken. Excellent!
on December 27, 2004
I loved Wolves Eat Dogs, and was torn between wanting to keep reading it and not wanting it to be finished.... The Arkady Renko series are not perfect detective novels - they tend to end slightly less interestingly than they start. Nevertheless, I've found them all hugely enjoyable, because few current writers can convey a sense of time, place, events and history as convincingly and effectively as Martin Cruz Smith.
Gorky Park is one of my all-time favourite books, one of the few I have re-read regularly. It has the most evocative atmosphere, and a story that simply wouldn't work anywhere else. Wolves Eat Dogs is just as good.
From the winter cold of the pre-Glasnost Soviet Union in Gorky Park through the fervour and political upheaval of Red Square, the history and happenings are made part of the characters' lives and of the story. To appreciate how well this is done in the Renko novels, you only need to read one of the many imitators of Gorky Park, where less skillful authors simply set a sub-standard story in 'exotic' Moscow, hoping for an instant edge - Vodka by Boris Starting is just one recent failed example.
Like Gorky Park & Red Square (Havana Bay was not quite at their standard) Wolves Eat Dogs starts with a weird and compelling crime, and is set in the most unusual locale yet - the Exclusion Zone, the 30km circle around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Inside the zone, fatalistic about its dangers and not quite believing that 'vodka protects against radiation,' are a finely drawn assortment of oddball & cynical residents, scientists & opportunists. Sent to the Zone to prevent him from finding clues closer to home, Arkady Renko stubbornly continues his unpopular murder investigation in the Zone's insular communities, to the beat of his ever-ticking radiation dosimeter.
But it's the spooky, creepy, dangerous location itself which gives so much to this story. The images of the deserted towns, the 'black' radioactive villages, stagnant cooling ponds, ruins too contaminated to move or even bury, & the lead sarcophagus ineffectively shielding Reactor Number 4 are all the more haunting for being true.
Life is stranger and much scarier than fiction. While the Chernobyl accident has long faded from Western news, Wolves Eat Dogs, while also a first-rate crime novel, paints a picture of Chernobyl's bleak & terrible legacy that will stay wih you long after you finish the book.
on November 27, 2005
I am a long time fan of the Arkady Renko series, so I was understandably excited to learn that the fifth in the series "Wolves Eat Dogs" had been released, and once again Cruz Smith has not disappointed.
In this tale, a middle aged lonely Renko continues in his role as a detective within the Moscow militia, investigating new crimes being committed by the "New Russian" business men and mafia's who have willingly adopted the values of western capitalism in the style of 19th century railway barons. When Renko is called in to rubber stamp the suicide of one of the most successful of these New Russians, he finds discrepancies which make him question the official story, in the process earning the ire of his superiors. So when another associate of the first suicide is found murdered in an abandoned village within the Chernobyl exclusion zone, Renko is exiled to investigate.
What Renko finds is a tale of murder and revenge stretching back nineteen years to the original Chernobyl disaster.
"Wolves Eat Dog" is a worthy addition to the series. Renko continues to be your classic fatalistic Russian character, who believes the worst of people and the world and who recognizes the corruption of his culture, yet in his heart remains an idealist who is willing to defy his superiors to achieve justice. And the Chernobyl exclusion zone, provides a fascinating and surreal setting for this tale, with deserted towns and villages, the return of wilderness and wild animals and those strange characters (including scientist and residents who have illegally returned) who makes the exclusion zone home.
on December 1, 2004
It used to be that foreign intrigue writers had it much easier. First it was the Nazi's and the likes of Eric Ambler had quite a good time with them. Then came the long cold war, with Clancy, Le Carre, and Ian Fleming. Martin Cruz Smith wrote one then called Gorky Park. Not so much a spy story as a murder mystery but set in the Moscow.
Then peace broke out. No more the monolithic Soviet Union but a bunch of 'stans and Russia. No more KGB but common money grubbing criminals. And why would we care any more about Russian criminals than we do our own. Put the criminals in New York, we can believe more about that.
Mr. Smith has done it differently. Through this series of five Arkady Renko novels the country has changed, but Arkady hasn't changed as much. He is still chasing murderers. His superiors want things swept under the carpet to make them look better. And eventually he is sent to the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion, the thirty kilometer evacuation zone around the destroyed nuclear plant.
I recently received some pictures from this zone, and I was surprised to see that they match very well with the scene as Mr. Smith describes it. The pictures didn't however show any of the most interesting characters Mr. Smith has created. Good story, great characters, set in a very unusual place.