November 26, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Wolves Eat Dogs

Current Status
In Season
Martin Cruz Smith
We gave it an A-

Martin Cruz Smith may never write another novel as twisty and electric as his 1981 thriller Gorky Park (though 1992’s Red Square comes close), but even his less stellar works transcend the vast majority of titles lining the best-seller racks of your local supermarket. Intricately plotted, smartly written, and tastefully ghoulish, Smith’s new Wolves Eat Dogs chronicles the ongoing travails of Arkady Renko, the cynical Moscow detective Smith introduced in Gorky Park, giving him a stormy new love affair and a creepy brainteaser of a mystery to unravel.

Pasha Ivanov, a prominent Moscow physicist-turned-tycoon, has plunged to his death from the balcony of his glitzy apartment. Was it a suicide? Was he pushed? And what’s the story with the salt? Ivanov’s stomach is filled with salt and he took a saltshaker with him when he fell. When Renko opens Ivanov’s closet, he finds fancy Italian suits and 50 kilos of table salt on the floor.

A week after Ivanov’s fall, his old friend and business partner Lev Timofeyev is found outside a cemetery near Chernobyl, his throat slit, his nose clogged with blood, and his left eye missing. According to officials, ”the body had been disturbed by wolves.”

Renko’s investigation of the possible links between the two deaths leads him to Chernobyl, whose ravaged landscape and ruined people quickly emerge as the novel’s real subject. Almost 20 years after the massive nuclear disaster, the Ukrainian steppes surrounding the reactor have devolved into a wasteland of decaying amusement parks, abandoned schools, ghost cities, and spooky groves of dead, red trees. Wolves and mutating voles have reclaimed the territory, which one character tells Renko has become ”the best wild-animal refuge in Europe…. Normal human activity is worse for nature than the greatest nuclear accident in history.”

No one is supposed to inhabit the ”black villages” — towns so toxic they were permanently evacuated after the meltdown — but a few elderly peasants have returned to grow vegetables in the radioactive soil. They’ve been joined by a fatalistic, hard-drinking group of icon thieves, scavengers, and scientists, including radioecologist Alex Gerasimov and his physician ex-wife, Eva.

Renko and Eva begin a rocky affair. ”Too pale, too dark, too sharp,” Eva turns out to be a sexy, complicated handful with a tragic past. In 1986, the year Chernobyl blew, she was walking in a May Day parade in nearby Kiev when a breeze from Chernobyl ”ends her days of dancing and begins her acquaintanceship with Soviet surgery.” Eager to whitewash the accident, the government had delayed warnings and evacuations. Eva was among the victims.

Smith occasionally seems to forget that this is a plot-driven whodunit, and his travelogue descriptions of Renko’s forays in the Chernobyl countryside drag on too long. But with a landscape so bizarre, it’s hard to blame him. And besides, he’s a strong closer. Most mysteries (including many of the best) collapse in the final pages, as the writer tries to concoct a remotely plausible explanation for all the diabolical events that came before. Smith doesn’t seem to raise a sweat: His chilling, elegant denouement feels both inevitable and surprising.

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