Wolves Eat Dogs

Dear J-

I’m almost ready to forgive Martin Cruz Smith for the shock he gave me in the first ten pages of Havana Bay; after finishing the fifth Arkady Renko novel, Wolves Eat Dogs, there’s some redemption for those of us who’ve adopted the rumpled Russian Columbo.  As a mystery, the story’s pretty far-fetched and the plot stretched impossibly thin:  New Russian billionaires and their deadly links to Chernobyl, the indefatigable, forever disgraced Arkady pursuing the threads of the story in his phlegmatic way, and disaster averted at the last second.  Since we first met him in Gorky Park, the methods haven’t changed (asking incessant questions, refusing to accept answers), and neither have the improbable results.  Yet the scope of his enquiries has grown and so have his responsibilities, which is at odds with his career-limiting philosophy of disregarding his superiors in doggedly pursuing the clues.  Thus in the rawest sense of a good book — does it make sense? — the answer is no.  The first two books in the series, Gorky Park and Polar Star, remain the superior mysteries.

Yet it’s less the need for an Arkady than it is for Smith to pursue the evolution of Russia; Gorky Park afforded a glimpse of fabled, curtained Moscow after sixty years of Communism, and the events following 1989 have provided rich ground for Smith to explore.  In this sense, rather than remaining the backdrop of the story, the setting has become the primary focus of these three Renko novels — Red Square, Havana Bay, and now Wolves Eat Dogs.  In this last, it’s still unclear how Smith can paint such a vivid picture twenty years on from the disaster.  The strength of his writing is in the winking insider’s view — it aids the believability of the story, that he can show you just how a local would feel about the place they live.  The details are well-checked and believable; the power plant at Chernobyl was one of the largest electrical generating stations in the world, never mind nuclear power plants, with plans for six reactors (they completed 4.95, apparently).  In contrast, the biggest nuclear power plant in the US is at Palo Verde, in Arizona, with a mere three reactors (the biggest one in the world is Kahiwazaki-Kariwa in Japan, weighing in at seven).

By this point the eye was always pulled to the reactors.  Chain link and razor wire surrounded what had been a massive enterprise of cooling towers, water tanks, fuel storage, cooling ponds, the messenger ranks of transmission towers.  Here four reactors had produced half the power of the Ukraine, and now sipped power to stay lit.  Three reactors looked like windowless factories.  Reactor Four, however, was buttressed and encased by ten stories of lead-and-steel shielding called a sarcophagus, a tomb, but it always struck Arkady, especially at night, as the steel mask of a steel giant buried to the neck.  St. Petersburg had its statue of the Bronze Horseman.  chernobyl had Reactor Four.  If its eyes had lit and its shoulders begun shifting free of the earth, Arkady would not have been totally surprised.

— Martin Cruz Smith, Wolves Eat Dogs

We forget how little we are able to change our world, or perhaps we ignore it.  Wolves Eat Dogs is an improbable tale in an impossible place with an unbelievable hero.  And yet I find myself drawn into Arkady’s evolving world and how he’s dragged along for the ride; the certain fatalistic tone of Russian literature infuses Smith’s novels lends weight to the foreign settings, and keeps me coming back for more.



Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: