- - Thursday, November 21, 2019

Investigator Arkady Renko is a popular series character enjoyed by crime aficionados ever since readers were first introduced to the Moscow detective in Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 thriller “Gorky Park.” A fine film based on the novel and starring Lee Marvin and William Hurt as Arkady Renko came out in 1983.

Arkady Renko is an independent and somewhat insubordinate investigator with a dry wit and a strong sense of justice, as well as a strong sense of irony. Throughout the series he has faced dangers and difficulties not only from the criminals he investigates, but also from his superior officers and other apparatchiks in the service of the oppressive and corrupt Communist regime in the Soviet Union.

In “The Siberian Dilemma,” Renko is now an investigator serving under the oppressive and corrupt Vladimir Putin regime. He must contend with crooked politicians, bent cops, criminal gangs, criminal oligarchs — and bears.

At four in the morning, Renko and his partner, Victor, a good detective when he was sober, as Mr. Smith notes, were called to the zoo to help deal with two free and ferocious bears. The zoo director, Victor’s sister, had shot the two bears with tranquilizer darts, but they were still alert and still dangerous.

“Sasha’s eyes were set in a huge pan-shaped head and he studied Arkady as someone who might share his misery. The bear was a towering beast but his customary roar was weakened by alcohol. His mate, Masha, sat on her rump, a half-empty bottle of champagne pressed to her breast. A plaque on the zoo guardrail read ‘Sasha and Masha, American Brown Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis).’ That sounded about right, Arkady thought,” Martin Cruz Smith writes.

“The bears had been released by somebody who had left a poster that declared ‘We Are Animals Too.’ Arkady wasn’t going to dispute this.

“Arkady was an Investigator of Special Cases, and if a bear running loose in the heart of Moscow was not a special case, he didn’t know what was.”     

Renko later faces wild bears and other dangers in Siberia. Prosecutor Zurin, Renko’s boss, sent him to Siberia to deal with a Chechen terrorist held prisoner for attempting to murder the prosecutor in Moscow. Although he assumes that he is being shipped off to Siberia to be out of his boss’ hair, he’s thankful, as his part-time girlfriend, Tatiana Petrovna, a bold and fearless investigative journalist, is in Siberia working on a story for the news magazine Russia Now.

She’s working on a story about Mikhail Kuznetsov, known as the “hermit billionaire.” Russia Now’s editor tells Arkady Renko that Kuznetsov is an idealistic oligarch who spent five years in a Siberian prison for daring to criticize Mr. Putin and his cronies.

The political dissident and billionaire oil oligarch may run for president of Russia, the editor tells the apprehensive investigator. He’s not only running for president, the editor continues, he’s running for his life. Anyone who challenges the Kremlin runs the risk of being murdered, the editor explained.

His prosecutor boss told the investigator to also check up on Kuznetsov while he was in Siberia, as he wanted to know what the billionaire was up to.

“As an investigative journalist, Tatiana was the natural target of thugs: a stab in the leg with a poisoned umbrella or sometimes a shot in the back of the head,” Mr. Smith writes. “She never looked for such dangers. She was fatalistic and, oddly enough, light-hearted. When he was with her, he looked for individuals who might wish her harm, who folded their newspapers too tightly or walked too briskly or too slowly.”

On the flight to the Siberian city of Irkutsk, Arkady Renko meets Rinchin Bolot, a gregarious Buryat Mongolian and resident of Irkutsk, who introduces himself as a “factotum.” The investigator asked him what that meant.

“Well, he does everything. That’s the point. Anything and everything: driver, translator, hunting guide. A factotum can even arrange romantic liaisons. At your command,” Rinchin Bolot said.  

Renko hires the factotum, who is a knowledgeable and able assistant. He deals with the Chechen prisoner and then runs into Tatiana Petrovna, who is in the company of Mikhail Kuznetsov. Renko also runs into Boris Benz, another oil oligarch who also owns half the timber and other natural resources in Siberia. He and Kuznetsov are business partners and were former fellow prisoners in the Siberia Gulag. Boris Benz, whose wealth and influence reaches Moscow and beyond, is surrounded by gangster bodyguards who were prisoners with him in Siberia.

Rinchin Bolot warns the investigator that Kuznetsov and Benz are two ruthless and dangerous men that one should not cross.

Rich in atmosphere and suspense, “The Siberian Dilemma” is an interesting and fast-paced crime thriller.

• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism. 

• • •


By Martin Cruz Smith

Simon and Schuster, $27, 288 pages

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