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New Russian landscape and bad guys, same dogged detective

Special to The Times

Wolves Eat Dogs

An Arkady Renko Novel

Martin Cruz Smith

Simon & Schuster: 340 pp., $25.95

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IN the old, pre-glasnost USSR, a Moscow detective who defied the orders of a superior might have wound up walking a beat in Siberia. If Martin Cruz Smith’s relentlessly fascinating new novel, “Wolves Eat Dogs,” is as well-informed as it seems, in the new Russia he could get sent to an infinitely worse hellhole, a Chernobyl still glowing from the 1986 nuclear reactor blowout. That’s the fate of the author’s dour, dogged investigator Arkady Renko, who has been defying the powers that be since his auspicious debut in the 1981 bestseller, “Gorky Park.”

In that cynical suspense thriller, Arkady’s investigation into a trio of mutilation murders was curtailed when it began to uncover a bit of premature perestroika hanky-panky between top government officials and an American businessman. Refusing to back off, the almost too moral Arkady (Smith uses the more personal first name throughout his novels) solved the murders, earned the enmity of both the KGB and the CIA, and wound up in Siberia.

It took him one novel, “Polar Star” (1989), to get his old job back and two more, “Red Square” (1992) and “Havana Bay” (1999), to bring him full circle to “Wolves” and his defiant investigation of two murders no one wants solved. The victims are an unlovable pair, New Russian billionaires of dubious repute. The first apparently leapt to his death from a 10th-floor apartment in Moscow. Witnesses and video cameras say he was alone in the apartment.

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The chief prosecutor, who’d been trying unsuccessfully to incarcerate the victim, warns Arkady, “We do not investigate suicides.... The last thing I want is for people to get the idea that we hounded Pasha Ivanov to death, and still went after him even when he was in the grave.”

But the detective is curious about grains of salt on the window sill and on the floor of a closet. And there’s the matter of the victim’s nosebleeds. As Arkady pokes about for answers we get the feeling we’re in a well-constructed crime tale with an unusually smart sense of place. But it is still conventional mysteryland with a locked-room murder and perplexing clues.

Then, about a third into the novel, the second billionaire is discovered with his throat cut in a radioactive graveyard near Chernobyl’s infamous reactors. As a reward for his obstinacy, Arkady is sent there to investigate and, like movie screens used to when Cinerama was in flower, the whodunit novel opens up to a wide, eye-popping landscape, albeit a ghostly and foreboding one, marked by “black villages” and “diamond shaped warning signs on tall stakes” and surprising pockets of humanity.

Using either voluminous research or a very active imagination or, probably, both, Smith creates a chilling mise-en-scene of the Zone of Exclusion, a pair of toxic ghost towns in which people with no other option live and love and loot (selling radioactive items in neighboring Russia). When Arkady visits a crowded cafe where soldiers and scientists gather each night, one of the latter advises him, “You have to pull your head out of your investigation and enjoy life.”

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It’s not an easy thing for the determined detective to do. Especially when the dosimeters are clicking and witnesses are being dumped in polluted ponds and hooded figures are attacking him with hockey sticks. He thinks he’s in this netherworld to find a killer, but, as Smith would have it, he’s really on a quest for something much closer to home, a way out of his deepening despond.

The novel’s title is the reason Zone denizens give for not owning a dog. One of the characters adds this bit of canine philosophy: “Wolves hunt down dogs because they regard them as traitors. If you think about it, dogs are dogs only because of humans; otherwise they’d all be wolves, right? And where will we be when all the dogs are gone? It will be the end of civilization.”

It’s clear which side of the dog-wolf conflict Arkady is on. When an attractive, world-weary doctor offers him the chance for a brighter future with her, one cannot but hope the self-described “man on the skids” will find a way to lift himself up and keep the killer and all the other wolves from their door.

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Dick Lochte is a critic of crime fiction as well as the co-author, with Christopher Darden, of the legal thriller “Lawless.”


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