Full disclosure: I received an A in Creative Writing at the University of Missouri by completely ripping off Martin Cruz Smith’s novels about the laconic Russian detective Arkady Renko. I thought the series, especially the first trilogy consisting of Gorky Park, Polar Star and Red Square, were a brilliant depiction of exile and isolation, and still do to this day. There, I said it.
On the other end of the phone, the author of those novels and the searing new story Tatiana, chuckles.
“Well, these honors come belatedly, but they do come, don’t they?” he says.
The past 15 years have not been kind to Arkady Renko—suicidal after the death of his wife in Havana Bay and chasing murderers into the dead zone around Chernobyl in Wolves Eat Dogs, Arkady was shot in the head in Stalin’s Ghost and now carries around what Smith calls a “time bomb” in his head.
“The fact is that there are different kinds of ticking time bombs,” Smith says. “There’s the bullet in Arkady’s brain and then there’s the fact that Russia itself is a ticking time bomb.”
The tone of the book still carries those undercurrents of dark humor the author is so gifted at creating. I’ve long said that the first line of Gorky Park is one of the finest openings in modern literary history: “All nights should be so dark, all winters so warm, all headlights so dazzling.” The opening of Tatiana? “It was the sort of day that didn’t give a damn.”
The book revolves around the character of Tatiana Petrovna, a reporter for a Russian gazette who plummets to her death from a sixth-floor window in Moscow. Smith unapologetically admits that his title character is a fictionalized version of Anna Politkovskaya, the brilliant journalist and human rights activist who was gunned down in cold blood in 2006.
“She was the reason I wrote the book,” Cruz freely admits. “I spent time at the Novaya Gazeta, the journal where she worked. I spent time with the people who knew her best. It’s a curious thing with Russians: You’re introduced to them and they’re very tough and only progressively meeting your eye.” Then they usually test your will, Cruz says. “They really want to know how well you know the subject that you’re writing about. Then suddenly it changes and it turns out they’ve all read what you’ve written and they want you to come along on this journey.”
Smith also explored Politkovskaya’s work through her journalism, most notably the posthumous 2011 collection called Is Journalism Worth Dying For? The author also noted that in many ways, her work continues to this day.
“Her colleagues characterized Anna as being not quite sane, but also unique and powerful in her refusal to be awed,” he says. “At the same time, they were very anxious that the West not forget that the journal still exists and other writers continue to take similar chances. They should not be forgotten in the wake of our remembrance of Anna Politkovskaya.”
While some readers view the Renko series as being very dark and grim, he inserts a surprising amount of humor, here most notably in a bunch of young Russian gangsters enamored with American culture.
“It allows you to have some fun,” Smith says. “The fact is that I really enjoy writing these books and one of the things I really enjoy is the humor you can introduce, especially when it’s based in truth. You have that moment when these young mafiosos at the cemetery start doing their imitations of Al Pacino in Scarface, and that’s funny. Sometimes I feel guilty about the amount of mayhem I introduce, but I like it, you know?”
The evolution of Arkady Renko is reflective of the changes in Russia itself over the past three decades. Where Gorky Park was very indicative of the stolid bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, recent books have found Arkady navigating the stormy seas of a new Russia where corruption is no longer institutionalized.
“I’ve got this new Arkady and a new level of evolution in the Russian mafia, which is moving into a roughneck type of capitalism,” Smith explains. “That’s been around for a while but now we have this new generation of mafia, the kind that goes to business school….We’re not dealing with communism anymore. This modern era is the age of pirates.”
Many of the events of the book are also drawn from real incidents, including the chaotic Beslan school siege and the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk. Any discussion of these events inevitably leads to talk about the conglomeration of power by Russian President Vladmir Putin. Smith says that the thread of the Renko books is often informed by the old Russian proverb quoted by the head of Stalin’s secret police: “When you chop wood, chips fly.”
“It’s a sort of faux politics in Russia,” Smith says. “You can talk about there being opposition parties but they’re phony creations cooked up by the Kremlin. You can’t run against the Kremlin without the Kremlin’s permission. Then there are people like Gary Kasparov, where as soon as he shows his face, he’s arrested. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the richest man in Russia and now he’s languishing in prison. He thought his wealth gave him some element of control and he was dead wrong. This is not politics as we know it. It’s control.”
Fans will be glad to hear that Smith is working on a new stand-alone book, but as long as fans keep reading, he intends to keep writing about Renko as well. Asked if he intended to comment on the upcoming three-ring circus that is the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the author plainly refuses.
“Everybody is going to be down there,” Smith laughs. “You could fill 747s worth of mystery writers who are going to be hot to write about trainers who are really KGB agents. I always find that if you go through the smallest door with the fewest people, you’re better off in the long run.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.