LITERARY REVIEW

The creator of Arkady Renko

MARTIN CRUZ SMITH is not merely America's greatest thriller writer, he's one of their best writers, period. And yet he goes unsung and unread in India. Smith is probably best known for his ground-breaking spy novel, Gorky Park, which introduced us to his great creation: the vulnerable, brave, romantic, stubborn Moscow detective, Arkady Renko, who proved to be that rare thing — a true hero. Havana Bay, Smith's new book just out in paperback, keeps brilliantly in character with the other Arkady Renko thrillers.

There are many reasons why I love what Smith does in the Renko thrillers but none more than the way he sets up a question — and it's always a simple one — for Arkady to answer and gets him to doggedly pursue it like a dog worrying a bone till he finds the answer. His death could only be a moment away but the curious, self-effacing Arkady will still want to get to the bottom of things. The simple question in case is always a routine homicide but one that will turn into an intricate puzzle involving an array of complex, fascinating characters and the fate of a whole nation. But the beauty of it all is that both Smith and his clever, guilt-ridden, compassionate Russian investigator will find themselves interested in just one question: why was so and so killed? "The problem (Arkady thinks to himself at one point in Havana Bay) was that he seemed to be going in reverse, knowing less all the time rather than more...but the very shapelessness of evidence was interesting. He needed it to be interesting because while he was engaged he was like a man walking on deep black water. He needed to keep going."

In the richly textured Gorky Park, Smith reinvented the genre by combing espionage, romance and suspense and setting the action in a brand new locale — Soviet Russia. His greatest achievement was to make an unfamiliar setting utterly believable by not exoticising Russia but instead using mundane, everyday details which give the reader an authentic feel of the place, people and culture.. Much against the wishes of his superiors, Renko stubbornly investigates a triple homicide and finds his life changed forever. In the 10 years or so it took for Martin Cruz Smith to research and write this ground-breaking spy thriller, he supported himself by writing under pseudonyms (he penned some of the Nick Carter novels). Not since Boris Pasternak had a writer so accurately evoked Soviet Russia and yet Smith had visited Russia only twice on a short tourist visa. Recently, when the ban on the book was lifted in Russia, citizens swore that Smith had uncannily captured the tormented, poetic Russian soul in his characters, especially his hero, Arkady Renko. Gorky Park begins where John Le Carre's novels leave off. It re-invented spy fiction for the 1980s. Highly influential, it continues to be imitated in best-selling, critically acclaimed novels like Robert Harris' Fatherland and Peter Hoeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow.

Smith writes sparingly (one book every five years) taking care to research them well and spending even more time getting them just right. What Smith excels at is in accurately recreating an unfamiliar place and people with freshly imagined, powerful details. Arkady is someone you want to meet again and again. And meet him you do in three brilliant sequels: Polar Star, Red Square and now Havana Bay. Polar Star, his best book, is possibly the most suspenseful and romantic thriller ever written. Post glasnost, Arkady Renko returns to investigate a murder abroad the Polar Star, a Russian ship fishing in American waters. No thriller can match its rich characterisation, its sense of atmosphere, drama and dialogue, and the way the plot suspensefully unfolds in character revelation, not action.

After the Renko books, Smith's best book is Rose an entrancing period mystery that is also a compelling love story. What Smith did for Russia in Gorky Park he does here for Victorian England: accurately recreating a bygone time and place. Smith is half American, half Indian and this gave him his unusual, intriguing subject matter for the one novel of his which flopped. Though critically acclaimed, Stallion's Gate, featuring a Native American hero and set against the backdrop of Los Alamos and the making of the atom bomb, became the least read of Smith's books. After years of writing under pseudonyms, Smith wrote Nightwing a taut, terrifying horror novel about rabid vampire bats under his own name.

Inventive and atmospheric, Havana Bay deftly evokes Cuba, a country that seems trapped between American capitalism, Russian socialism and its own (dying) revolutionary idealism — as though waiting for something to happen. And indeed, at the very heart of the book's mystery is that people are being killed not to cover up a crime committed in the past but for one that is yet to be perpetrated. Renko arrives from Moscow to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the possible murder of his one time enemy-turned-friend, Colonel Pribluda. It is soon clear to Arkady that there is to be no investigation because the Cuban police have pronounced it a suicide. Arkady is to return to Moscow with the body that very night. While waiting in an apartment to catch the plane back, Arkady becomes depressed. Without a case there is no reason for him to go on living. It is now that we learn that his great love, Irina (who appears in Gorky Park, Red Square and is yearned for in Polar Star) is dead — an accident. On the verge of committing suicide, Renko becomes convinced that his old friend was killed and he must know why. The last 50 pages of Havana Bay is rousing, hair-raising as we learn with Arkady why his friend had to die. Here's to the next Renko instalment.

pradeepsebastian@hotmail.com

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

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