I'm a crime fiction writer. So I ought to shoot straight. Here it is: there are lots of crappy detective novels out there. Which is why I say thank God for Arkady Renko.
The hero of Martin Cruz Smith’s excellent series set in the Soviet Union and, later, Russia (with stops in Cuba, Ukraine, Germany and Alaska) is the closest today’s crime fiction gets to Chandler’s idea that “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean.” In many ways, Cruz Smith is the closest among current crime writers to the keen yet elliptical style of plot development perfected by Chandler. (In Chandler’s case, that was, as
he admitted, largely because he didn’t really keep track of the plot; I
suspect that’s not the issue with Cruz Smith.)
[Note: To qualify my lead paragraph, I ought to quote Chandler once again:
“There are as many bad literary novels as bad detective novels. The bad
literary novels just don’t get published.” That’s not true anymore, as
anyone who’s ever tossed a copy of Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America”
at the wall will vouch. Still detective fiction retains that reputation among certain circles, and indeed a lot of crap still washes through the sleuthing sluices.]
I’ve read all the Renko novels, as well as some of Cruz Smith’s standalone
books. From the perspective of a writer, I’ve observed with enormous
pleasure the elements that make Renko work so well, and of course the
manner in which Cruz Smith puts them to effect.
A key to this is Renko’s voice. His apparently deep disillusion is something of a trick. Renko’s father was a Stalinist general and as an investigator he’s constantly measuring himself against that old bastard – and regretting the similarities he finds. This continuity between the old USSR and the new FSU grounds Renko. It’s why he’s not a drunk like some of his colleagues, and why he isn’t corrupt like the others: he’s a hard-edged idealist, like his father, who happens to have inherited the humanity of his mother.
Cruz Smith’s Russia is the perfect backdrop for Renko’s tawdry shining
armor. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cruz Smith has painted the
breakdown of society better than any nonfiction or journalism I’ve read.
It’s what I’ve tried to do with my Palestinian crime novels. A place over-covered by journalists, like Gaza or Moscow, might seem to have little new to yield for a fiction writer. But the element overlooked by journalism and nonfiction – which sees everything in terms of politics – is that politics in such places is merely the thin end of a gangster wedge which must reach to every corner of society and go to sordid lengths to maintain control. Thus any murder Renko uncovers (such as the whore/dancer of “Three Stations,” his latest) reaches directly to the upper echelons of the government, the security establishment or (in the case of “Three Stations”) the new oligarchic economy.
That’s what makes Renko so dangerous that the bad guys want to stop him.
And that’s an element detective writers ought to note: when your sleuth is
after the truth, are the villains trying to stop him merely to avoid prison
for their personal misdeeds? Or are they protecting a corrupt, monolithic
system that our hero will uncover and, in his small way, smother around the
This kind of context is what makes Renko the most compelling detective in
contemporary crime fiction.