on 10 June 2001
This is the first of the Arkady Renko novels I have read, and buying it was influenced by the fact that I had spent time exploring Havana and its environs a short time before.
Summoned by an unsigned fax from what turns out to be an old hand at Havana's diminished Russian Embassy, detective Renko travels from mid-winter Moscow to subtropical January in Havana, to investigate the disappearance and death of a KGB operative and one-time associate. Both he and his drowned friend Pribluda are of a mindset unable to come to terms with life in public service in post-communist Russia.
With an almost bumbling manner and persistence reminiscent of a Slavonic Peter Faulk playing Columbo in the 1970's television series (in a black cashmire coat with a story of its own in place of a trench-coat), Renko finds himself an unwelcome and unpopular reminder to the Cuban police investigating the gruesome corpse washed up in Havana Bay, of Russia's once domineering influence over their affairs. And a threat to some shadowy individuals with their own agenda for change in this outwardly ramshackle island nation.
Martin Cruz Smith has captured many of the undercurrents that pervade society in modern Havana. They range from a crumbling political, economic and social system (to say nothing of crumbling buildings and crowded tenements), to the moonlighting, hustling, and sex-for-sale, that puts bread on Cuban tables in the way that the state's mediocre salaries do not. He captures too, the cameraderie of Cuban war vererans of Angola and Ethopia. The pervasiveness of African mysticism and music in Cuban life. And the combination of stoicism and sheer exhuberance that shine though in what Castro euphemistically calls the "special times", of no Russsian aid and an ongoing US embargo.
These ingredients are skillfully blended into a suspenseful tale that draws us into three hundred pages plus of the intrigue and double-dealing that swirl around a handful of well-drawn characters. Once into it, I found the book hard to put down. I'm sure it will make a good movie too, though it may be a little cerebral for current Hollywood tastes. All the better if it could be filmed on location. Conjo!
on 28 December 2007
Moscow detective Arkady Renko, out of work and miserable for the last half-dozen years, is called to the Russian Embassy in Havana to look into the mysterious disappearance of his old comrade Sergei Pribluda. Renko is fighting suicidal impulses, trying to survive despite a crushing personal tragedy, and the trip to Cuba is an opportunity to leave the gloomy and cold Moscow winter behind and get away from the constant reminders of better times. Unknown to his bosses he plans to commit suicide once he gets to Cuba.
But immediately after he arrives the Cuban police want him to identify a floater pulled from Havana Bay as his missing friend. Pribluda, a former KGB agent, who is currently the Russian Security Service's resident spy in Havana, has been missing for almost two weeks. The Cuban authorities want him to make the identification, acknowledge that the death was from natural causes, and return to Moscow on the next flight.
Renko says he's not sure it Pribluda, since the body is badly decomposed and the circumstances surrounding the death may not be as obvious as they seem. Renko wants the Cuban police to investigate, however they apparently won't. Renko regains his will to live and is determined to find out what happened to Pribluda, so he begins his own snooping. What he finds is more than he expected and certainly more than the Cubans wanted him to find. It seems the case has the potential to become an embarrassment for Castro's government and the Cuban's want the matter closed quickly and quietly.
As he's done in Renko's past adventures, Smith shows his readers a culture and country foreign to most in the United States. He depicts a Cuba learning to make its own way in the world, an island with rich customs where 1950s vintage American cars cruise seaside boulevards and many people practice the mystic Santeria religion. I couldn't put this book down and I can't recommend it enough.
What's this, a Renko book with no snow? I approached this book with trepidation as Renko abroad just didn't seem right, but as they say you can take the boy out of Moscow, but...
Arkady Renko is back in his fourth outing and instead of solving murders in Moscow he's in Havana to tie up the loose ends relating to the officially acccidental death of his old friend, and erstwhile KGB major, Pribluda. Renko remains the sardonic enigma we have grown to know and love, but his trip to Cuba is more than just another murder story, here we see Renko struggling to come to terms with who he is and his place in the world. The world has changed, but has he? Can he cope with the modern post-Communist Russia or will he find a surrogate home in Marxist Cuba? Will he come to terms with losing his beloved Irina forever? Will he fall for the fierce but fragile Ofelia?
Martin Cruz Smith serves up another dish of sinister menace with lashings of blood and seedy locations, but I have to say this book seems to take an absolute age to get going. I only stuck with it as I has enjoyed the other Renko books so much and I was glad that I did. However, readers new to Renko might be put off with the slow start and give up before the real fireworks start. As such, I recommend that you read the Renko books in order and that way you'll know more about Renko's legacy, his thorny friendship with Pribluda and why he misses Irina so.
The sultry feel of this book will make you hot under the collar and make you reach for some cool rum, but don't be fooled as the freezing chills of Gorky Park can still be felt.
Martin Cruz Smith is a former journalist and magazine editor. "Havana Bay" is his fourth novel - after "Gorky Park", "Polar Star" and "Red Square" - to feature Arkady Renko and was first published in 1999.
Renko, the hero, works as an Investigator with Moscow's militia - more or less the standard police force - and has something of a chequered career. Never a truly 'practising' member of the Party, Renko hasn't always been thought highly of by those in authority. He has always wanted to catch the people responsible for the crimes he's investigating, regardless of the 'political' consequences - as a result of this, he was once dismissed from the Party for a lack of 'political reliability' and sentenced to a life in Siberia. He has been rehabilitated for several years now, though he always remained something of a disappointment to his father - a very famous ex-General. His father has been dead for some time, though Arkady has recently lost his wife, Irina.
While Renko has been abroad before, "Havana Bay" sees him operating entirely outside the Russian sphere of influence. Having received a mysterious unsigned fax, he's in Havana - apparently to identify a body the Cuban authorities believe to be an old friend of his : ex-KGB Colonel, Sergei Pribluda. Pribluda had been in the Cuban capital for eleven months working as an attache to the Russian Embassy. He had been missing for around a week, until - it would appear - the discovery of a body found floating in Havana Bay. While certain characteristics match up - dental records, for example - Renko isn't entirely convinced : the body has decomposed to such a point that it's lacking a face and fingerprints. However, since the Cubans believe Pribluda was actually working as a spy, they aren't even remotely bothered about opening an investigation. Arkady, on the other hand, wants to find out what's happened to his friend - even if the corpse isn't Pribluda, he's been missing for a week. Renko isn't the sort to be overly bothered about operating an 'unofficial' investigation - he is techincally a tourist in Cuba - but things won't be easy for him. Since the fall of communism in Russia, there's been a certain amount of tension between Cuba and Renko's homeland. As a result, Renko won't be getting any real help from the Cuban investigators - Sergeant Luna, in particular, goes out of his way to be a hindrance. However, there is a chance Arkady may be able to win over Detective Osario...
Although much better than your average murder-mystery book, I don't think "Havana Bay" was just quite as good as the previous instalments in the Renko series. Part of that came down to the location - I think I may have missed the political games played in Russia. I also thought it was very unfair on Renko to have killed off Irina - he deserves a reason to smile ! However, it is an enjoyable and easily read book - Arkady is a character fans of Harry Bosch should take to very easily.
When the brooding and sometimes depressed Russian "hero," Arkady Renko, travels to Havana to investigate the gruesome death of a Russian colleague, his contact with the high energy Cubans does little to improve his view of life. Renko, who has been featured in four Cruz Smith novels, has been so anxious to escape from the corruption in Moscow, that he has paid his own way to Cuba for a break. Within a week, however, he is planning his suicide.
Forty years have elapsed since the Cuban Revolution raised and then dashed the hopes of the Cuban people, and corruption is rampant among the higher-ups in the Cuban police department and the government. The early affinity between the Cubans and the Russians has changed to outright enmity, and Renko finds his own life threatened by Cubans. Though as a Russian he is not supposed to investigate his friend Pribluda's death, he is unsatisfied with the inquest. Making the acquaintance of Ophelia Osorio, a police officer in the National Police, who believes him to be honest, he is sometimes able to gain important information.
Gradually, this complex story evolves into an investigation of much more than the death of one Russian. A sugar company, set up in Panama and involving high-ranking Cubans, some Chinese, and some Russians appears to be a shell in a get-rich-quick scheme. Several American radicals now living in Cuba are involved in this and other schemes, and as the action picks up, complicated by Santeria and Abakua religious practices and beliefs, Renko is brutally attacked, leaving him wondering if he will live long enough to get on the plane for Moscow that weekend.
Cruz Smith's ability to convey the atmosphere of Havana and to depict the mood of its inhabitants of all economic levels brings the story alive, and the contrasts between Renko's dour Russian character and that of the Cubans suggest that the alienation between the two countries may have involved more than the Russians' failure to support Cuba financially. The action, slow to start and sometimes graphically violent, ends in a dramatic grand finale, including several crosses and double-crosses and leading to the reader's new view of what was really going on behind the scenes. Though the action is not as tight as it is in Gorky Park and Polar Star, this novel further develops the character of Renko and hints at new, more complex Renko novels to come. n Mary Whipple
on 4 September 2010
Want to know what Castro's Cuba was like right after the Soviet state disappeared and the "American dream" not the mention the Hugo Chavez funded interregnum had yet to descend on the island? And better yet, want to see it through the eyes and romance of our beloved Martin Cruz Smith hero Renko? Well here you are.
A friend said that when he started doing business in post Breshnev Russia Russians told him that he best chronicler of that period was not a Russian but the Native American (ie Indian) author Martin Cruz Smith. So he read Gorky Park. He said that if Havana Bay was half as good as Gorky Park was at capturing Moscow we should read it before going to Cuba.
Wow... way better. This book beat Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway etc (and we red them too and loved them) at capturing modern Cuba, especially the beat of the music ... and the contradictions between what works and what doesn't.
Read this for all the reasons you would read Martin Cruz Smith and more. Read it for understanding Cuba. Read it for understand the Russian betray of Cuba. Read it for understanding the love hate relationship with America. Read it for a great read.
From Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown to Commissario Brunetti and Bruno, Chief of Police, by way of Maigret, Poirot and Spenser, crime fiction has given us some memorable investigators. In Arkady Renko, Martin Cruz Smith has created a policeman to stand comparison with the best.
The author conjures an atmosphere which may or may not be authentic but feels so in the reading. This is a work of fiction; no claims for authenticity are made. Reviewers seeking to make political points are missing the entertainment, not to mention overlooking prose with style and consistently apr imagery. The plot is intricate, the characters are vivid and real - Orfelia's grandmother is a joy. But Renko with his laid-back sardonic humour is the star in Cuba as he has been previously in Moscow.
Just occasionally the thought occurs that 450 pages may be fifty too many but that can be levelled at other novels not half as good as this.
on 11 June 2000
Cruz Smith takes his time with his novels, only coming out with a new one every three years or so. He's a master craftsman, with writing skills far ahead of most of his peers in the mystery genre. Havana Bay, set in the Cuban capital, reacquaints us with Arkady Renko, the Russian detective from Polar Star and Gorky Park. The setting is contemporary; the Russians have abandoned their former allies and Havana is a city of faded paint, 1950s Cadillacs, young whores and conspiracies against the bearded supremo. Renko's objective is to find out why a Russian colleague ended face up in the water, and avoid getting whacked while he does so. Melancholy from the accidental death of his wife in Moscow, Renko floats through the novel with pithy one-liners as the corpses pile up. A fantastic read.
on 14 February 2001
The character Arkady Renko should show aspiring writers the right way to do it. Modern novels generally fall down in their characterization, and the most important aspect of any novel (as any college professor will tell you) are the people in it - period. Plotting is of course important, but is secondary to the heroes and villains that we the reader take sides with. For fans of Martin Cruz Smith and the enigmatic Arkady Renko, I suggest you try MCS's brother John Templeton Smith and his novels "White Lie" and "Saigon Express" which introduce John Winter aka Sibelius. Continuing the family tradition of excellence it seems.
on 6 October 2014
Read Gorky Park when it first came out and then somehow forgot about Renko and then discovered the latest Cruz Smith books featuring our favourite hapless Russian detective. So now have gone back and started the publications immediately after Gorky Park. Polar Star and Red Square were great. So is Havana Bay. If you love Renko and the writings of Cruz Smith then this will not disappoint. And it probably provides you with that reason to visit Cuba you've always been looking for. Lots of mystery, insights into Cuban life and lovely descriptions of an island split between Communism, Capitalism and Castro.