12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Good on Chernobyl but Weak as a Thriller,
This review is from: Wolves Eat Dogs (Paperback)
After enjoying the two middle books in the Arkady Renko series (Gorky Park, Polar Star, Havana Bay, and Red Square) I picked up this fifth one with pretty high hopes. The story begins in roughly contemporary times with Renko still hanging on as Senior Investigator in Moscow. When a Russian bazillionaire industrialist takes a swan dive off the 10th-floor balcony of his locked ultrasecure apartment, Renko is called in to rubber stamp the apparent suicide. When the tycoon's friends and business associates all confirm the man's recent depression, and the security cameras show no intruders. However, Renko wants to know what caused the depression, and more interestingly, why one of the apartment closets is full of salt. True to form, Renko stubbornly pursues these lines of inquiry to the frustration and anger of his superiors and the chief of security for the bazillionaire's company. Soon thereafter, the bazillionaire's longtime friend and partner turns up dead in the 30-kilometer "zone of exclusion " which surrounds the Chernobyl nuclear accident site in northern Ukraine.
This provides Renko's superiors with a perfect excuse to exile him from Moscow for a while and punish him by stationing him in the highly radioactive environs of Chernobyl. This is where the book really works -- as a travelogue of Chernobyl some 15-20 years after the accident. Cruz Smith took several trips to the area to learn about the "black villages" and the lives of those who live in the contaminated area. This comes alive in his portrayal of the corrupt militia, the massive chop shop selling radioactive car parts, the underfunded researchers who risk radiation to try and understand the effects of the accident, the poachers who kill radioactive wild boar to sell to Moscow's 5-star restaurants, the old people who snuck back into their evacuated villages to live out their years, and more. He also tells of the chain of incredibly foolish mistakes that led to the disaster, as well as the inept Soviet response to it (including building a town for evacuees on a radioactive site). Eventually, of course, the story of the dead bazillionaire dovetails with Chernobyl, but frankly, it can't compete dramatically with the tragic story of the people in the zone which Cruz Smith tells so well.
As a thriller or crime novel, this installment never really works. The story is too cloudy, the characters too disparate and undeveloped, and the ultimate "answer" comes long after the reader has ceased to care. Renko doesn't evolve at all, he's the same stubborn, fatalistic cop who takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'. Of course, as in the other books, he does manage to find a woman to share his life with. There's also a running subplot involving a mute Moscow orphan who has somehow entered Renko's life. His numerous appearances never seem to add up to anything other than a possible set-up for a future book. On the whole, fascinating stuff about Chernobyl, but that's about it.