At one point in Red Square, by Martin Cruz Smith, one of Arkady Renko’s temporary partners turns to the battered detective and asks, “Renko, do you ever feel like the plague?” (248*). At this point, Renko has been attacked a couple of times. His partner in Moscow has been killed. A couple of witnesses had been killed after talking to him. And, oh yeah, the Soviet Union is going to collapse any day. Renko spends most of this book in Munich and Berlin, so there’s a real chance that his country won’t be there when he returns.
It begins with two explosions. Renko and his partner, Jaak, are working with the banker to Moscow’s various mafiya when first one, then another, explosion destroy the banker and the banker’s car—and all of the banker’s records. All their leads—members of different mafiya groups—are pointing the finger at each other. Renko’s bosses were wondering what the detective was doing with Rudy banker anyway and are happy to just close the case. Renko being Renko, he ignores his bosses and keeps looking for the person or people who killed Rudy. Rudy’s apartment is so clean that there are few leads. All Renko has to go on are the stories from the mafiya leaders, Rudy’s appointment with an art professor, and a weird fax message that keeps getting sent to Rudy’s machine. Someone wants to know, “Where is Red Square?” But why ask Rudy the mafiya banker when one could just consult a Moscow guidebook?
As Renko digs into Rudy’s life, a few more clues show up. One of Renko’s bosses and his partner are killed—which makes it impossible for the detective to quit, even if there’s almost nothing to go on. The signs lead Renko to Munich. He manages to wrangle a visa and a plane ticket to the city. At the time, Germany was coping with its Reunification and Renko’s investigation doesn’t even manage to get on anyone’s back burner. But again, Renko being Renko, the detective manages to annoy enough people that the villains start to make mistakes.
Curiously enough for a book set in 1991, quite a bit of the central mystery actually has to do with the earliest days of the USSR. The immanent fall of the Soviet Union has made it necessary for “entrepreneurial”-minded people to start thinking about the future. The mafiya path isn’t open to just anyone. The government has been kaput for years. The economy is lurching along like a zombie on its last…limbs. Crime is an attractive option for the villains in Red Square. Their crime is so big, so daring, that they probably could have gotten away with it. (If it wasn’t for that meddling Renko.) Partway through the book, Renko realizes that Rudy (and others) were killed because the criminals were after hidden Russian assets—mostly artwork. The Red Square of the title is not Red Square, but a painting called “Red Square” by Kazimir Malevich. Avant-garde art flourished for a very brief time before Stalin consolidated his power. In the 1930s, artists and writers and intellectuals were muzzled (or worse). Their art was not destroyed. It was hidden away. By 1991, no one was watching the vaults.
As if there isn’t enough tension in watching Renko investigate, there is a ticking clock in Red Square that’s impossible to ignore. The last General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, resigned on 24 August 1991—four days after the end of the August Putsch. Within days, republics started to break away. By the end of the year, the Soviet Union no longer existed. I knew 1991 was the year the Soviet Union fell. I wasn’t quite sure when in 1991, but I knew enough to realize that Renko is racing against a clock he doesn’t know is counting down on him.
By the third book of most mysteries series, I can usually feel a pattern developing. The books tend to get more character based and lose a bit of their edge when it comes to plotting (in both senses of the word). That hasn’t happened with Red Square and the Arkady Renko series. The mystery in this novel was fiendish. I had no idea what was going on until Renko pieced together the various parts of the conspiracy. The chaos makes these books feel very real. They’re messy and bloody and confusing and utterly fascinating to me.
* Quote is from the 2007 Kindle edition by Ballantine Books. Page numbers are approximate.