Saturday, June 18, 2005

Start at the fifth book in the series? Why the hell not!

Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith Arkady Renko and I go way back. Gorky Park came out in '82, and, poor student that I was, I bought it as a paperback in '84. 1984: First year of medical school. My mind was ripe for dermestid beetles munching flesh off human skulls. At that age, I hadn't read much hard-boiled fiction, and the moody, angst-ridden Renko came as a breath of fresh arctic air compared to the science fiction characters I knew from childhood. (True, Neuromancer came out that year. That, too, was a kick in the head.) And the interlude sequence, two-thirds of the way through -- when, suddenly, we are brought face to face with Renko's nemesis, Pribluda -- changed forever how I looked at fiction, both as a reader, and as a wannabe writer. 1989: the year of Gorky Park's first sequel, Polar Star. I was still in medical school (don't ask). Polar Star proved to me that a sequel could be every bit as good as the first novel. Having read at least one sequel to Dune (gotta be vague, here -- I've struck those books from memory), I'd had my doubts. Gross-o-meter high point in Polar Star: the slime eels. Yum. Red Square (1993) : This one almost put me off Smith indefinitely. Then my wife bought Rose (2000: not a Renko novel, but still a keeper). By now I was a grown-up. I'd done a bit of writing, enough that I could recognize Smith as a master technician. So I went back to the Renko series with book four, Havana Bay, and found our Investigator lower than ever. Near the beginning of the story, Renko is assaulted in his apartment. The usual rough stuff, right? No: there's a twist (no spoilers here) which hooked me in to the rest of the book. In Wolves Eat Dogs, Renko's investigation of an apparent suicide leads him to the ruins of Chernobyl. What do you do with a burnout like Renko? Surround him with other burnouts! (I wonder if Smith ever worried whether his readers would say, "Enough already.") The outskirts of Chernobyl is populated with soldiers, scientists, and folks too old to care about a little radiation. There's a strong, unspoken feeling that Death stands just behind everyone's shoulder. The investigation begins in Moscow, where billionaire Pasha Ivanov, president of NoviRus, has jumped ten stories from the window of his luxury suite. There's a bottle of salt in Ivanov's hand, more salt on the windowsill, and a pile of it in the closet. NoviRus Senior Vice President Lev Timofeyev has a bloody nose . . . and before long, he shows up dead in a cemetery near Chernobyl. Unexpectedly dead, that is. Perennial pain-in-the-ass Renko doesn't think Ivanov jumped voluntarily. When Timofeyev's body is found, Renko's boss ships him down south to the Ukraine for a bit of hot time. In graduate school, we had to wear those little radiation badges so that we'd know when we'd been poisoned. Renko gets a Geiger counter and a bit of advice -- don't eat the locally grown food. But, wouldn't you know it, before long the Geiger counter has been retired, Renko's scarfing down the local produce, lovin' the local women and scrappin' with the local brutes. You gotta love him. Smith does everything right: three-dimensional characterization, clearly written action sequences, crisp dialog, a deft plot, and plenty of poignant drama. Some folks read Elmore Leonard to hone their craft; I read Smith. D. P.S. I think I may have gone way beyond the boundaries of good taste tonight with Bare Rump's Diary. Box me about the ears if you are offended.


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