We gave it a B+
Arkady Renko, the melancholy, lovelorn, and half-starved Moscow homicide detective from Gorky Park and Polar Star is back in a new political thriller that owes as much to Dostoyevsky as it does to Le Carré. Though populated with seedy bureaucrats and livened throughout by some spectacular violence, page for page there’s more angst here than there is suspense. As Martin Cruz Smith becomes a better and more serious novelist, he becomes less and less genre-bound.
Red Square is a visually precise piece of fiction, leisurely in pace and convoluted in plot: The investigation of a car bombing leads to the discovery of a grand financial fraud and culminates with the failed hard-line-Communist coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. But as ingenious as the plot is, it’s still easy to get lost in it. Renko as a detective isn’t particularly helpful either. He’s not given to pointing out patterns or chains of events, and he never explains a clue.
It’s August 1991, and Special Investigator Renko has returned to the Soviet , capital after being ”rehabilitated” for specious political felonies. Moscow is grayer and more depleted than ever. Food, with the exception of potatoes and beets, is a cruel memory, and the black market has spawned rival ”Mafias” that are growing in strength and audacity as Communist authority wanes. Assigned to gather intelligence about this burgeoning criminal society, Renko turns an underworld banker named Rudy Rosen into a police informer. When Rosen is burned to death inside his Audi, Renko and his team of malcontent detectives go searching for his killers.
Hampered by bad morale and primitive crime laboratories (”a Soviet investigator was more dependent…on social nuance and logic”), the investigation plods on. Then more bodies turn up, the corrupt city prosecutor relieves Renko of his duties, and the detective himself becomes the quarry.
In this novel more than in the previous two, Renko resembles Lieutenant Colombo without the sunshine. He’s a shabby man in a shabby city, a dissembling klutz but one given to bouts of depression and capable of suffering deep humiliation. His beloved Irina — the dissident whose pretty neck he saved years ago — is now living in Munich and broadcasting anti-Soviet news over Radio Liberty. When she coolly demolishes Renko’s romantic fantasies, he can scarcely summon the willpower to draw another breath. Sleuths just don’t get glummer than this. Yet it’s Renko’s dispirited character — and the author’s confidence in letting it carry the novel — that makes Red Square compelling even when the story gets torturous.
This time we leave Renko standing in the ruins of post-Soviet Russia, a hungry detective in Yeltsin’s Moscow. But it’s a safe bet we’ll be seeing him again. Communism, capitalism — whatever the ism, there’ll always be a need for a good homicide cop. B+