Book Review of Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith
Martin Cruz Smith has been successful as a writer because he has mastered several aspects necessary for a top-notch mystery novel. He chooses unique settings, both geographic and historical, that he captures expertly with his prose, creating an environment both exotic and familiar at the same time. His stories have been set in Moscow before the fall of the Soviet Union (Gorky Park), a Victorian coal mining town (Rose), the Bering Sea (Polar Star), and Tokyo on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor (December 6).
His mysteries unravel slowly without unusual twists or unbelievable plot devices, letting human actions and emotions drive his story. Finally, his protagonists are rendered painfully human, struggling with their own flaws and weaknesses as they doggedly uncover the necessary clues, usually at their own peril. His most popular protagonist is Moscow police detective Arkady Renko, and in Wolves Eat Dogs, he brings him back again in an enjoyable and unsettling mystery set around the events at Chernobyl.
Wolves Eat Dogs is set in modern Russia which now boasts more billionaires than any other country in the world. But it’s a dog-eat-dog world where very few of these wealthy men live to an old age, often succumbing to violence perpetrated by those who want to take over their companies or markets. The novel begins with one of these men, Pasha Ivanov, plunging to his death from the 10th-floor balcony of the safest apartment in all of Moscow.
It has all the signs of a suicide and Ivanov had been acting very strangely in the months before his death. Arkady Renko is sent to investigate, although it’s made clear to him that his conclusion had better be suicide, because a murder would further spook international investors in the New Russia. Everything appears to point to suicide, but both a few clues that don’t make sense and a lack of a reason for Ivanov to commit suicide unnerve Arkady.
Despite warnings from the prosecutor to close the case, Arkady continues to dig and ask questions, often of powerful men who aren’t exactly forthright with their answers. This leads to him possibly losing his job, until Ivanov’s partner is found with his throat slashed in the Zone of Exclusion around the damaged Chernobyl nuclear site.
This provides the prosecutor the chance to get rid of Arkady by sending him into exile at Chernobyl, where life is cheap and the crime is unlikely to be solved. If Arkady found the people in Moscow uncooperative, the people at Chernobyl are a mixture of uncaring, unfriendly, and fatalistic. Arkady lacks a body to inspect, the crime scene is unpreserved, and the local militia commander is unconcerned about the murder except that it’s marred his perfect record.
The only people in the Zone of Exclusion are scientists studying the effects of the radioactivity that has permanently scarred the area, local poachers, scavengers stealing what they can salvage from the abandoned buildings, and elderly residents returning to their homes since they’re more likely to die from natural causes before radiation poisoning does them in. The person who found the murdered corpse has disappeared and Arkady’s partner in Moscow now refuses to take his calls on order of the prosecutor.
The only person who attempts to help Arkady is Bobby Hoffman, an exiled American who was Pasha Ivanov’s assistant, although his motives for helping Arkady seem suspicious and his enforcer makes sure Arkady does what he wants. All this in an environment with radioactive hot spots, Ukranian/Russian tensions, and a place where dogs can’t be kept, because as Arkady is told several times, “Wolves eat dogs.”
It’s a typically hopeless case for Arkady Renko. Arkady is a good man and a good cop, but his soul is scarred by his Soviet/Russian past where happiness is elusive and the truth is often unimportant. He lost his wife to institutional neglect and Arkady doesn’t have much of a personal life.
The truth, though, and his understanding of the events in his world are the driving force in his life, even if they don’t mean anything to anyone other than himself. Arkady pushes forward asking questions, and the few answers he gets lead him no closer to understanding the events surrounding the murder.
The Chernobyl nuclear reactors loom in the background, casting an ominous shadow over the landscape and the lives of the people it affected. Arkady is told the story of the accident, the bureaucratic bungling and falsehoods that compounded the tragedy, and the hundreds of thousands of lives that were never the same.
Even the scientists who’ve come to study the effects of the radioactivity are haunted souls. Eva Kazka is doctor who treats the locals and who also served time in Chechnya. She’s a cold, hard woman who mistrusts Arkady. Alex, a physicist, is her ex-husband, fiery and stubborn, and Arkady is not sure he can trust him. They all have dinner at the house of an elderly couple in the village, where Eva recites drunken poetry:
Alex pulled Eva’s face to his and collected a deep kiss until she pulled away and slapped him hard enough to make even Arkady smart. She stood and plunged out the door. It was like a Russian party, Arkady thought. People got drunk, recklessly confessed their love, spilled their festering dislike, had hysterics, marched out, were dragged back in and revived with brandy. It wasn’t a French salon.
The amazing thing about all the Arkady Renko mysteries is how thoroughly Russian they are. That’s a good compliment for an American author. For all I know, Martin Cruz Smith has gotten it all wrong, that this sense of fatalism and ennui that runs through the Russian psyche doesn’t really exist, and that his re-creation of modern Moscow and haunting Chernobyl are just figments of his imagination.
He’s incredibly convincing if he does have it wrong, but I suspect that’s not the case. Part of the enjoyment of his mysteries is being able to completely understand Arkady Renko and wish that this good man who’s lived a difficult life can find some happiness and meaning to his life. Not only do the pages turn quickly waiting for the mystery to unravel, but the suspense of the novel also includes how Arkady’s life will be affected by the circumstances of the story.
Wolves Eat Dogs is an excellent addition to the Arkady Renko series, and perhaps the best since Gorky Park. If you’ve devoured previous Martin Cruz Smith novels, then this is one you have to read. If you’ve not yet enjoyed an Arkady Renko novel, Wolves Eat Dogs is a fine place to start. It’s a dark story that unfolds in a damaged world, but with Arkady at the center of the novel, there’s always a glimmer of hope.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.