In his first outing in five years, Arkady Renko (Havana Bay, 1999, etc.) goes to the forbidden zone around post-disaster Chernobyl, where wolves have returned.
Is Russia better now? Detective Renko’s Moscow doesn’t seem to be. Prosecutor Zurin, to whom the widowed policeman answers, is as arbitrary and slippery as any Brezhnev era apparatchik, and the future of 11-year-old Zhenya, an orphan Renko inherited from a flighty lady friend, is as bleak as any Soviet scenario. And the murder that’s just been dropped on his plate offers Renko as many opportunities to screw up his life as an old-fashioned KGB investigation. Filthy-rich businessman Pasha Ivanov either defenestrated himself or was defenestrated from his 11th- story digs, landing on, of all things, a saltshaker. And there’s salt heaped all over the newly vacated apartment wherein sits Ivanov’s very shaken American assistant, Bobby Hoffman. Renko’s investigation is officially cut short by Prosecutor Zurin, who lets him know that what they have on the sidewalk is a suicide and that things are to be wound up quickly. But even with a totally compromised crime scene, the detective knows there’s more to the story, and he obeys Hoffman’s urgent plea to follow up. The trail leads to Pripyat, the abandoned and quarantined scientific city near Chernobyl that was built to house the technocrats, engineers, and scientists who created and ran the world’s biggest concentration of nuclear reactors. In this weird ghost town, where one of Pasha Ivanov’s vice presidents was found with his throat slashed, Renko comes upon squatters, scavengers, savage soldiers, and Eva, a strung-out but sexy physician who treats the radiation wounds of the natives who refuse to leave. Important answers come from one of the nearby villages where old peasants, thumbing their nose at the radiation, live as they have lived for centuries.
As always, Smith (December 6, 2002, etc.) imagines a Russia that is sad, broken, and, somehow, romantically irresistible.