By Martin Cruz Smith
Simon & Schuster, $25.99 241 pages
Martin Cruz Smith, in the course of his 13-novels-and-counting career, has created his own niche in crime fiction, works that I choose to call “Russia noir.” A frequent visitor to Russia, he witnessed the degradation of the old Soviet Union into a society of vice, crime and general human despondency that makes one wonder … well, let me say it: Perhaps communism was not that bad after all, at least in terms of maintaining a semblance of an acceptable society. (I don’t really mean that, but the heretical thought did flicker through my mind.)
“Three Stations” opens with 15-year-old Maya, a runaway prostitute from a brothel in the sticks, on a Moscow-bound train with her 3-week-old baby. Maya knows that the monsters who owned her will try to track her down with the aim of meting out a horrible punishment as a means of discouraging further escapes. A supposedly friendly older woman comforts Maya and gives her a drugged drink. When she awakens, both her baby and the woman are gone.
A frantic Maya steps off the train into a Russian version of the inner circle of Dante’s Inferno. Although the tourist maps call the grubby area “Komsomol Square,” Moscow locals know it as “Three Stations” because three rail lines converge there, each with its own terminal.
Don’t even think about going to Three Stations, should you visit Moscow. Mr. Smith’s description surpasses in depravity the old Times Square at its pre-Giuliani grubbiest: “Pickpockets, flyboys handing out directions to strip clubs and slot arcades, gangs of street kids looking for the wounded, the slow, the easy mark. … Drunks were everywhere, but hard to see because they were as gray as the pavement they sprawled on. They were bandaged or bloody or on crutches.” The scent of cheap vodka and old cigarette smoke seems to waft from every page. Teen thugs set fire to derelicts “just for the sport of it.”
At the midst of this squalor is the embattled investigator Arkady Renko, first introduced by Mr. Smith three decades ago in his novel “Gorky Park. ” As always, Renko is on the verge of being fired, this time for refusing to go along with the attempted cover-up of a prostitute found dead in a trailer near Three Stations. Investigators who are on the payroll of mobsters who control Moscow vice conveniently write off the death as a drug overdose. But Renko, after viewing the pristine condition of the corpse, thinks otherwise, and he pushes for a more thorough investigation, even when superiors order him to desist.
Devotees of crime fiction prefer that the protagonist have a strong moral sense of right and wrong, even if his or her modus operandi does not pay strict attention to the rule book. Such is the strength of Renko, who is at his core an admirable fellow. Renko has become a surrogate father for a street urchin, Zhenyan, who helps the runaway prostitute as she desperately searches for her stolen baby, fending off another teen gangster who tries to coerce Maya back into prostitution. And one realizes that both Renko and his protege remain decent despite the criminal milieu in which they live.
“Three Stations” relates the two quests, finding a link between Maya’s missing baby and the truth behind why the prostitute was murdered. Their adversaries are many, and deadly. Omnipresent is a thuggish billionaire, Sasha Vaksberg, who commands a veritable private army bent on silencing Renko because the dead prostitute worked for one of his clubs. He was among the favored “businessmen” who commandeered wide swaths of the Russian economy under the protection of Vladimir Putin.
Now things have changed for him and cronies, as Mr. Putin turns to a new set of favorites. In a conversation with Renko, he offers a primer on present-day Russian economic realities: “When the dear old Soviet Union broke up, I made a great deal of money. It was like creating a new jigsaw puzzle out of old pieces. Granted, we took advantage where we could. What great fortunes did not at the start? The Medicis, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers?”
But as he lamented, Mr. Putin now turned on the first set of oligarchs, sending many to prison in Siberia, ordering others poisoned, even those who fled Russia. “We were the idiots who put this lizard in power. Our lizard turned out to be Tyrannosaurus rex.”
To Mr. Smith, to be sure, parts of Moscow exude prosperity, with opulent nightclubs, gambling dens and pricey prostitutes. But he uses telling vignettes on how this uneven economy has cut into the soul of Russia. Academic sociologists could benefit from his adroit recitation of revealing anecdotes. Hear, for instance, the plaint of a minor character: “You know what’s tragic about all the money floating around? A bottle of vodka used to cost 10 rubles, just the right sum for three people to share. Not too much, not too little. That was how you met people and made friends. Now they have money they got selfish. Nobody shares. It’s torn apart the fabric of society.”
Maya emerges from this horrible mess with her baby, Renko keeps his job, and he even acquires a woman who loves him. Nonetheless, one comes away from “Three Stations” feeling the need for a good hot shower. The Russian Tourism Bureau is not putting his book on a recommended reading list.
Joseph C. Goulden, a Washington writer, is the author of 18 nonfiction books.