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March 16, 2005

Wolves Eat Dogs

If writing murder mysteries were a chess match, I’d resign after reading Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith.  Investigator Arkady Renko, who first appeared in Gorky Park before the fall of Russian communism, still doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone.  His character continues to develop, though, so it’s a pleasure to meet him in book after book even if his superiors wish he would disappear.

This time Renko’s investigation of a possible suicide in Moscow leads him to Chernobyl in the now independent country of the Ukraine.  The deceased is Pasha Ivanov, a “new Russian”, one of the self-made billionaires who emerged from the wreckage of communism.  A Russian saying, according to the book, is that every fortune starts with a crime.  Investigator Renko looks for the crime at the beginning of this fortune as a clue to why Pasha Ivanov suddenly plunged from the window of his heavily guarded apartment.

(nb.  Do fortunes in America end with a crime?  The stories coming out in executive trials here are of careers that began honorably and ended with fraud after the perpetrators were already incredibly wealthy.)

The new Russia is as corrupt as the old one.  Renko had been assigned to investigate Ivanov before his defenestration, apparently so that whatever he found could be used by the prosecutor who is Renko’s boss to get the prosecutor a seat on the board of Ivanov’s NoviRus Corporation.  The prosecutor and the head of security for NoviRus would prefer that Renko stop investigating after the subject died – “clearly suicide” according to them; but that would be out of character for Renko who abhors loose ends.

The descriptions of life in the Zone around the Chernobyl reactor are wonderful.  Officially, there aren’t supposed to be people there except for those few needed to guard and service the nuclear piles that remain at the reactors which didn’t melt down.  But people have moved back in.  There are old people who have nowhere else to go and are not afraid of further effects of radiation.  There is the operator of a chop shop who salvages parts from highly-radioactive scrap vehicles and sells them around the world.  There are murderous brother cops who chase Renko through a ruined town on inline skates – they were once hockey players.  There are wolves who do eat dogs and Alex Gerasimov, son of a famous nuclear scientist, who studies them and the other wild life of the Zone.  He is interested not only in a high mutation rate but also in how animals might proliferate after a nuclear Armageddon.

Eva Kazka treats the old people in the Zone who otherwise wouldn’t get medical attention since they are not officially there.  She once had hopes of being a dancer but was irradiated by the plume from the Chernobyl meltdown – a plume which did not officially exist and therefore was not a reason to cancel the parade she was in.  Eva and Renko become a very odd couple.

All Arkady Renko novels are dark, this one darker than most.  But there is a wild humor in the darkness.  The novels, especially this one, are populated by people with indomitable will to survive an unfriendly world.  Renko has an indomitable will to know what and why when nothing is as it seems.

My hope is that, when my murder mystery is finally finished and available, there will be email from Amazon saying “people who ordered Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith also often order Tom Evslin’s…”

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