After Arkady Renko’s last case (Gorky Park) ended in a Phyrric victory, he was interned in a Soviet hospital and diagnosed with “sluggish schizophrenia.” (The theory behind this diagnosis was that anyone who acted against the state was clearly insane.) Martin Cruz Smith’s novel Polar Star begins a few years after Renko’s ignoble dismissal from the Moscow militia. When we finally catch up to him, Renko is working on the “slime line” on a factory ship. He’s run as far east as he can to get away from the KGB and the men who want to put him back in the hospital or a prison. Renko keeps his head down and cuts up fish. His plan might have worked if a female crewmember hadn’t been murdered and the ship’s captain hadn’t found out about Renko’s experience as an investigator.
Renko has clearly learned little from his experience on the wrong side of Soviet “justice.” While he is reluctant to investigate, Renko just can’t bring himself to pass off Zina Patiashvili’s death as an accident or a suicide. Not when someone clearly stabbed her in the side to make sure she wouldn’t sink. Really, it’s just amazingly bad luck that the ships trawling net scooped Zina back up out of the sea. Captain Marchuck assigns Renko to work with the Polar Star‘s political officer to question the crew, conduct an autopsy, and draft a report for the police in Vladivostok.
Polar Star—the book, not the ship, this time—follows what I’m starting to see as the pattern of a Renko investigation. Renko asks a lot of questions that no one wants him to ask, some of which uncover more layers of treachery and crime. Unknown agents repeatedly try to kill Renko. Renko, battered and mostly dead, manages to work out a nearly impossible mystery. The word “pattern” might lead one to think that the novel is formulaic or boring. But I am starting to learn that even if Smith uses a formula, his writing and his characters make the book a standout in the genre.
Smith’s evocative writing made me feel like Renko’s shadow on the noisy, freezing, smelly Polar Star (the ship). The chill of my air conditioning became the chill of the Arctic wind as Renko roamed the decks and visited the Polar Star‘s American partner trawlers. The fact that the novel is set on a factory ship, for the most part, gives the novel an atmosphere of tense claustrophobia; there’s just no where to go to flee from murderous enemies. By rights, Renko should be dead, several times over. As if this wasn’t enough to make Polar Star (the book) a great read, there’s the ending. I can’t describe it here because a) it would spoil the novel and b) one has to make the journey with Renko to believe it. It’s spectacular and thrilling and bittersweet in the best way.
What I love about Gorky Park and Polar Star is, of course, Renko himself. The man cannot allow himself to go along with the myths that are necessary to preserve the Soviet system. These myths usually mean that justice is only given lip service and victims suffer for other people’s crimes. Survivors are left to wonder what happened to their loved ones. The well-connected are immune to everything except Renko’s tenacity. Stories about extra-judicial justice—not to say revenge tales, necessarily—are genre catnip for me. With Smith’s Renko novels, I get my catnip and brilliant writing.
If I didn’t have a stack of books that are going to be published soon to review, I would dive right into the next book in the series, Red Square.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Give this book to readers who feel hopeless or who need to see right triumph in spite of impossible odds.