Flying over the Atlantic, while returning from a family trip to France, I read Martin Cruz Smith's novel, Wolves Eat Dogs. I am a fan of the Arkady Renko novels and am, in fact, not quite sure why I haven't already read this one, given that it was published in 2004.
I owe to Smith much of my sense of Russia over the past 26 years--tracing its progress--perhaps--from Communist cold war big brother (detailed in 1981's Gorky Park)to Mafia ridden nightmare (in Red Square, 1992) to capitalistic free-for-all in Wolves Eat Dogs. At each stage Arkady, hampered by his sadistic and stupid bosses, has teased the truth out of Russia's corrupt intrigues. In each book, he is so saddened by his past and present, his future seems almost untenable. I find Smith a wonderful writer--his language is sharp and distinct, his scenes starkly readable.
In Wolves Eat Dogs, Arkady travels to the heart of darkness--the Zone of Exclusion which rings the dead zone of Chernobyl. Smith spins the story of what happened and still happens there. His descriptions of the towns, decreed to be empty, yet housing those who couldn't or wouldn't leave, are marvelous. Arkady's stoic heart is pulled by a woman and a child, the former a doctor in the Zone, the latter a silent orphan in Moscow. Some of my favorite dialog happens as Arkady, banished to the Zone to find who slit the throat of the senior vice-president of NoviRus, a huge New Russia corporation, spins the story of where he is to the eleven year old he feels somehow responsible for. The boy, silent on the phone in Moscow, impels Arkady to meld the dark fairy tales of Baba Yaga with the damaged world he finds in Chernobyl.
Like many books, Wolves Eat Dogs stumbles at bit at its conclusion. The story of who the killer is seems a bit oddly resolved and the last chapter is a bit too tidily woven. I forgive Smith these weaknesses, however. As I sat on my plane, the hours flew by and, at the end of the book, as I have in all of Smith's Renko series, I felt I understood a bit better the complex vastness that is Mother Russia.