In this fifth novel (published in 2004) featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko (following Gorky Park, Polar Star, Red Square and Havana Bay), Cruz Smith returns Renko to Moscow, where he is investigating the mysterious death of Pasha Ivanov in a fall from his luxurious apartment. On the face of it, why should Ivanov want to kill himself? He was a successful businessman in the new Russia, with a high-end lifestyle, glamorous girlfriend, and plans for business expansion. So Renko suspects murder, but he can’t see, given the increasingly paranoid security precautions taken by Ivanov in the last few weeks before his death, how this could have been accomplished. And why are there heaps of salt all around the apartment?
Under pressure from his superiors to close the case as suicide, Renko once again continues to dig for the truth, until the discovery of the body of Ivanov’s associate, Timofeyev, is found in a car scrap yard in the Zone – at Chernobyl. There are still people living in the town of Pripyat, closest to the former power station – scientists and researchers, mostly, but also peasants who returned to the homes in which they had lived so long: how are they connected to the case?
Renko discovers connections between Chernobyl and Moscow in Ivanov’s life, and becomes involved in a new personal life with a traumatised boy and a woman researcher. Eventually he discovers the killers of Ivanov and Timofeyev, and their reasons for doing so, but not before a tangled web of lives and past actions has been laid bare.
Cruz Smith paints an authentic view of life in contemporary Russia, and the conflicts between rich and poor, the new Moscow and the old Soviet way of life, between Ukraine and Russia, and between personal life and public duty. Renko is still the same principled, moral character as he was in the previous books – as he has to be, since there are so many outside pressures on him to stop the investigation. He is embittered and cynical, but is driven by the need to find the truth, however much it costs.
The landscape and devastation around Chernobyl is convincingly described, even eighteen years after the accident, and Cruz Smith is an effective writer of the crime novel, even if he has used here a very unusual setting. There’s a rather sad, reflective tone about it, as of dreams betrayed and promises broken, but there’s hope at the end.