Martin Cruz Smith has created a remarkable character in his redoubtable Russian policeman Arkady Renko, the protagonist of GORKY PARK and POLAR STAR. The rejected son of a famous Russian military officer who became a brutal wartime hero of the Communist Party, Renko is a brilliant investigator with a skeptical and independent point of view. Having earlier sacrificed himself for his dissident lover, Irina Asanova, suffering imprisonment and exile for helping her escape, he returns to Moscow on the brink of political and social dissolution. The country is run by corrupt officials and black marketeers; organized crime has replaced the Party as the controlling force in Russian society.
Smith brings all of these elements together in this story which covers two weeks in August, 1991, a time leading up to the attempted coup of August 21. The suicide of Renko’s father coincides with the murder of an underworld banker who has secretly cooperated with Renko in his investigation of the black market underground. The murder trail leads both to the Russian mafia and to criminal connections in Munich, where Renko again meets Irina, now working as an announcer for Radio Liberty. Renko finds that his perceived duty to his homeland conflicts with his personal desires, that by solving the case (which has now cost the life of a fellow investigator) he may again lose Irina.
Although the plot of this detective novel is carefully and complexly constructed, Smith’s primary interest is in the character development of his subtle protagonist. Renko is a tormented hero, a man of conscience. But he also is a man of action. The violent conclusion is rather jarring and not entirely convincing. Nevertheless, Smith’s portrayal of Renko’s navigation through a collapsing world is compelling and often masterful.