Moscow Investigator Arkady Renko is back for his ninth and possibly last book, The Siberian Dilemma by Martin Cruz Smith. As with all Arkady Renko books, it’s filled with murder, intrigue, and wry Russian humor.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am an unadulterated Martin Cruz Smith fan. His writing, particularly his Arkady Renko series, has made a tremendous impact on me and my prose. I certainly would never compare myself to him, he is one of the greats after all, but I must acknowledge how much he’s influenced my work. If you like my work, thank Martin Cruz Smith.
Now that I’ve gotten that shameless fanboying out of the way, back to the task at hand. The Siberian Dilemma begins with Arkady dealing with a rampaging bear at the Moscow Zoo. Bears are a common theme in this book, so pay attention. Arkady is still an investigator, meaning he’s probably pushing 60, or maybe 70. He’s been an investigator since 1981, seeing the transformation of the USSR into Yeltsin’s Russia, and finally, into Putin’s private kingdom.
In the previous novel, Tatiana, introduced Arkady’s latest flame, Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist uncovering corruption in Putin’s Russia. At the beginning of The Siberian Dilemma, Tatiana has disappeared while reporting in far-flung Siberia. Her editor isn’t too concerned, but Arkady, being his naturally pessimistic self, is. An opportunity presents itself when Prosecutor Zurin – Arkady’s direct superior and a longtime thorn in his side – orders him to Siberia to retrieve a Chechen terrorist named Aba Makhmud. It turns out that Aba tried to assassinate Zurin in Moscow, but has since been captured in the Wild East.
Arkady heads to Irkutsk, where he meets Richin Bolot, a Buryat (one of Siberia’s many indigenous ethnic groups). Invaluable and slightly comedic relief, Bolot becomes Arkady’s sidekick for the rest of the book, since his usual partner – Victor – is back in Moscow. Using Victor’s help, Arkady is able to prove Aba Makhmud’s innocence, despite a full confession. Arkady sticks around in Siberia and finds Tatiana, who is now closely acquainted with two billionaire oligarchs – Boris Benz and Mikhail Kuznetsov, whom she’s doing a story on.
It is strange Martin Cruz Smith chose to recycle the name Boris Benz from the novel Red Square, but maybe he just simply forgot he’d already used that exact same name for a different character. It’s a writing sin, but not an unforgivable one.
Regardless, both oligarchs are sketchy characters, Benz with his connections to Siberian oil, and Kuznetsov, a former criminal who served a stint in prison and has since reformed. Supposedly. Oddly, the two oligarchs appear to be on friendly terms, but ever the cynic, Arkady has his suspicions. Kuznetsov is planning a run for president, even though he knows he doesn’t have a chance to defeat Putin. He figures that if he gets enough support, that might show the outside world that there’s widespread opposition to the Kremlin strongman.
Boris Benz invites Arkady on a bear hunt near Lake Baikal, frozen in the arctic winter. But when things go awry, Arkady finds himself at the mercy of a ravenous bear and has to use all of his skills just to survive the merciless attack. Arkady Renko has survived insane situations before, and this is no different. However, some reviewers seem to consider this a “nuke the fridge” moment, ala Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Arkady is frequently beaten and knocked over the head so much, his skull must be a jigsaw puzzle by now. Detectives getting bonked on the head is an extremely common trope in the mystery/thriller genre, but the Arkady Renko books take it a bit further.
Two very clear examples that shine brightly in my memory are in Havana Bay, where Arkady is half-beaten to death with a baseball bat. He recuperates for a day, with aspirin as his only medical treatment. In Stalin’s Ghost, he is literally shot in the head. Let me add a disclaimer, that Havana Bay and Stalin’s Ghost are two of my favorite Arkady Renko novels, and these scenes didn’t diminish my enjoyment of them. On the contrary, I always like seeing how he survives the unsurvivable, thanks to Martin Cruz Smith’s magnificent prose. So, given that Arkady has survived much more brutal punishment, his fight with a bear didn’t seem so out of place.
The titular Siberian dilemma appears toward the end of the book, the culmination of political intrigue from the Kremlin and his boss/rival, Prosecutor Zurin. I wasn’t a big fan of the ending, and the book is so short it’s almost a novella, but I will always join Arkady Renko for whatever investigation he leads next, down the dark and mysterious streets of Russia. Hopefully, this won’t be the last time we meet.
US readers can order the book on the American Amazon page.
UK readers can order the book on the British Amazon page.
Canadian readers can order the book on the Canadian Amazon page.
Australian readers can order it from the Australian Amazon page.