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Arkady Renko's Journey to Chernobyl's Heart of Darkness,
This review is from: Wolves Eat Dogs: An Arkady Renko Novel (Hardcover)
I have read and enjoyed Smith's previous Renko novels. Renko's erratic career path as a police inspector has seen him survive, barely, the apparatchiks of the Soviet regime (Gorky Park). He has survived its imminent demise (Polar Star) and the emergence of bloody cowboy capitalism (Red Square). Now, in Wolves Eat Dogs, Renko must operate in a Russia dominated by an elite group of billionaire oligarchs.
The primary setting of Wolves Eats Dogs is the 30-kilometer evacuation (or exclusion) zone in the northern Ukraine, just south of Ukraine's border with Belarus, surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. On April 26th, 1986 the number 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded after a planned test shutdown went seriously wrong. The subsequent release of radioactive material (including massive amounts of cesium and strontium) is estimated to have reached levels exceeding 40 times the amount of radioactivity released by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The short and long term effects of this explosion, particularly on the Republics of Belarus and Ukraine has been devastating. For example, the phrase "Chernobyl Necklace" refers to the ubiquitous ear-to-ear scar worn by Byelorussians and Ukrainians that have had thyroid cancer surgery. The thyroid cancer rate is estimated to be up to 2000 times greater in Belarus than in the general world population. Smith's eye for details makes note of these scars. The Chernobyl disaster has special resonance for me as I have spent five years involved with a Children of Chernobyl program that brings children from Belarus to the United States for six week health and respite visits. The dark world that Martin Cruz Smith portrays in Wolves Eat Dogs tracks remarkably well with accounts I have heard from Byelorussians and Ukrainians about life after Chernobyl. Smith made numerous trips to the exclusion zone and his investment in time and first-hand research bears fruit. It is into that dark world that fate and police work brings Inspector Arkday Renko.
A billionaire oligarch, Pasha Ivanov, is found dead outside his high-rise Moscow flat. All evidence leads to the conclusion that Ivanov has taken his own life by jumping from his penthouse apartment. Renko is not so sure and decides to conduct his investigation despite the clear displeasure this evinces up and down the police ladder and amongst the surviving owners of Ivanov's company. In this, Renko's stubborn, principled independence has not changed at all since he first came to view in Gorky Park. When a second related death occurs in the 30-kilometer exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl, Renko's superiors are pleased to pack him off to investigate the death in the Ukraine. The majority of the action takes place in the exclusion zone. Renko plods on despite himself and despite attempts by virtually everyone to leave things alone.
It is impossible to say more about without revealing too much of the plot. However, it seems to be that in Wolves Eat Dogs we have seen Martin Cruz Smith at his finest. Smith does not devote any time to fleshing out the personal side of Renko. However, the similarity between the inner-life of Renko and the stark, despairing, world of the exclusion zone is unmistakable. It is at once a moving and tragic reflection of the life lived by Arkady Renko. Smith's portrayal of Renko, life in the exclusion zone, and his development of the plot from start to finish is first rate. This is a book worth reading.