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••• The International Writers Magazine - 21 Years on-line - Reviews

The Siberian Dilemma
By Martin Cruz Smith
Pub: Simon & Schuster 2019
ISBN 978-1-84983-818-4
• Sam North review

Siberian Dilemma

First the bad news if you are Martin Cruz Smith. None of the staff at my local Waterstones had heard of him.   I realise that Gorky Park was in a previous Ice Age in millennial time scales, but this is the ninth Arkady Renko book and the author recently won the Edgar Grand Master Award.  The good news is that Smith is on form and Arkady Renko is miraculously still alive and functioning as an honest cop in Putin’s Russia.  One assumes the only one, and for that he is hated by the corrupt Public Prosecutor Zurin, who dispatches him off to Siberia to retrieve a criminal whom he alleges shot at him.  Oh yes and spoiler alert, Renko has to shoot a drunken bear (with a dart gun) at the zoo. And yes this is relevant.   As ever with Renko stories, crime and his personal life seem to coincide and how he has survived the shootings and beatings he’s had over the years is a mystery all on it’s own.  Martin Cruz Smith excels on detail and one of my favourite Renko stories is ‘Wolves Eat Dogs’ set in Chernobyl well before it became a tourist destination.

Renko’s elusive journalist girlfriend is Tatiana Petrovna and she seems to have vanished in Siberia. At least not returned on the date she specified. So, aside from taking statements from a killer in Siberia, he has a good reason to be there to look for Tatiana. To his disappointment it looks like Tatiana has hooked up with an oligarch called Michael Kuznetsov (closely modeled on Mikhail Khodorkovsky) who is preparing a campaign to run against Putin for President and somehow stay alive. He’s one of the richest men in Russia who has recently spent five years in a Siberian prison at Putin’s behest. He is friends with another Oligarch and oilman called Benz and both are ruthless men used to getting everything they want.  Renko realises he has wandered into something well above his pay grade.

This is fast paced stuff and there are bears (if you are vegan you might just get a bit squeamish).  On the way Renko picks up an enthusiastic new pal called Bolot who claims he is a factotum and makes himself indispensable to Renko for the contacts he might make on the way.  Will he find Tatiana? Will he survive to the end of the novel … always touch and go with man who makes enemies before breakfast.

Renko novels are less crime fiction and more social comment on Russian life. This latest novel breezes through the adventure a little too fast and could have explored the main characters much more thoroughly looking into their motivations and excesses and expends interesting characters such as the beautiful Saran who is very connected to the spiritual side of Siberia - yet married a brutal boxer. Colourful Bolot alone deserves his own spin off. A little more detail on the Lake Baikal triangle might be useful for the eternal skeptic Renko.

The only puzzle for me is why Netflix hasn’t picked up the backlist and turned this into a series. It would be terrific.  Make your local Waterstones stock this book!

© Sam North Jan 14th 2020

Author of Another Place to Die: The Endtime Chronicles

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