Russia may be nearly 20 years removed from the end of Soviet Communist rule, but the latest events in that country truly bring home the phrase "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Spies are still trying to infiltrate American soil, albeit with the help of social media and encrypted Wi-Fi connections. The Kremlin still all but controls the flow of media, and don't use the words "election" and "democracy" or you'll be laughed out of Moscow. There's more money for the rich to throw around, and the underworld swells larger with more small- and big-time criminals on the make.
In other words, contemporary Russia is still a prime setting for crime fiction, rife with narrative avenues for a detective to wander down at his or her peril. For Martin Cruz Smith in particular, Russia has proved to be a rich mine for more than three decades, never ceasing to provide tales of corruption, abuse and world-weary observation for his iconic protagonist, Arkady Renko, to investigate.
Renko was plenty jaded in "Gorky Park," the 1981 classic crime novel that introduced him to millions of readers, as any cop would be who's attempting to solve gruesome crimes in Soviet Russia. But in Smith's new novel, "Three Stations," Renko is at a new low level of cynicism. His high-ranking position masks a near-total lack of work from a boss keen to suspend him for not toeing the bureaucratic line. His partner Victor considers it a good day if he shows up to work four hours late and hung over from only a single-digit drinking binge. And his foster son, Zhenya — the offspring of a long-ago enemy — picks the most inopportune times to stop answering Arkady's phone calls and messages.
Into this emotional quagmire drops a dead body, that of a beautiful young woman, apparently the victim of a drug overdose. She could be easily written off as a prostitute, a box ticked off as an unfortunate (but easily ignored) accident, if it weren't for her invitation to the Nijinsky Fair, a charity ball velvet-roped-off for a select number of Russia's billionaires. The pinpricks of prior investigative prowess grow within Arkady, and the search begins, for the simplest of reasons: "No one just dies…. You can be killed by a bullet or a skip in your heartbeat or a vine that starts winding around you on the day you are born, but no one just dies." Discovering who killed the girl means discovering who she is — and what insidious underbelly she represents.
The main investigation underpinning "Three Stations" doesn't carry the full force of past adventures, reflecting the only 240-odd pages Smith employs to describe Renko's newest internal and external struggle. The denouement, in particular, feels rushed and half-hearted. Smith does, however, nail the key to the structure of a detective novel, when Renko thinks "there was still time for [him] to walk away from a case he did not fathom and a woman he did not understand." One can trace that very essence back to Hammett and Chandler, who imbued their respective gumshoes with dogged determination no matter what price they paid later. So too must Arkady, who is doomed to repeat this existential cycle in book after book.
The same state of confusion applies to Zhenya, who is mixed up in the curious case of another young woman, Maya, and her missing baby.
Here is Renko's boy, nicknamed "Genius" for his prowess with money and chess, kicking himself for his emotional cluelessness, wanting to trust someone he doesn't know and engaging in a mutual game of distrust. Smith imparts Maya's harrowing back story with compassion and makes the inevitable intersection of her plight with the mystery of the dead woman believable instead of awkward.
"Haven't you noticed that Moscow is full of monsters?" one of Renko's many foes asks him, citing Peter the Great's long-ago decree to bring the freaks to him to observe. "It's happening again, only this time money rules. Monsters are gathering in Moscow. Whores, millionaires, like dung beetles rolling dollar bills. God is dog, Dog is …, I am God."
It's a sarcastic, nihilistic point of view, but Smith's point hits its mark with requisite force. You can replace ideology, philosophy and people at the top, but basic human behavior — especially the worst of it — is embedded so deeply into psychological fabric that the same battles are waged even when the monsters keep shifting shapes. And Renko, like his detective siblings in crime, will remain to fight these monsters, no matter what sort of abyss they must look into, and which looks into them.
Weinman writes Dark Passages, which appears monthly at http://www.latimes.com/books, and blogs at http://www.sarahweinman.com.