Martin Cruz Smith’s Russian detective Arkady Renko has been kicking around since 1981’s Gorky Park. Even in that book he was already a senior investigator. If Renko aged at the same rate as his reality that would make him pretty old by now. Luckily for readers, Renko follows the rules of most fictional detectives in that he refuses to age in real time. Which is great for readers of this series which has taken Renko through the fall of the Soviet Union now through to the lead up to the invasion of Ukraine in his tenth outing – Independence Square.
When Independence Square opens, Renko’s girlfriend Tatiana has left him and he agrees to search for Karina, the missing daughter of a known gangster called Bronson. Renko’s search brings him into contact with an anti-Putin politician called Leonid Lebedev, a relationship with Karina’s flatmate and fellow violinist Elena, and an ultra-nationalist biker gang called the Werewolves. Not long after that the bodies start to pile up including a friend of Renko’s adopted son Zhenya who was part of the Lebedev movement. The investigation takes Renko to Ukraine and a connection to the history of the Tartars, displaced when the Russians took over Crimea after World War Two and still seen as enemies.
As always with these books, the centre is Smith’s hard-boiled main character. Renko sees things as they are in modern Russia, but even as much as he is able to play the system he often gets played himself. In Independence Square, Renko finds out he has Parkinson’s Disease, a condition that Smith also has, making his job just that little bit harder. But he still fulfills all of the noir detective checklist: gets beaten up, gets a girl (despite their age difference) and gets to the painful truth.
But the other aspect of these books that keeps them fresh is their reflection of the politics of Russia at the time. Smith’s previous Renko outing The Siberian Dilemma, centred on the oligarchs and oil. Independence Square, set in 2021, looks at the Russian occupation of Crimea, what happens to Putin’s political rivals and chronicles the events that were leading up to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Giving space for plenty of observations like this one:
What did Putin want? What did he need? Enemies, the more the better, because only when you had enemies could you justify the terrible things you wanted to do. The Tartars were his enemies, the unwashed, the other.
While this is the tenth book of a series, with plenty of little call backs and recurring characters, Smith makes it easy to read as a stand alone. Independence Square is another solid, topical entry in what has been a fascinating and in many ways unique long running series. And while Arkady Renko should by rights probably be in his 80s by now, we can only hope that he continues to age as slowly and bring his own, inimitable view of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
For more of Robert’s reviews, visit his blog Pile By the Bed
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Robert Goodman is a book reviewer, former Ned Kelly Awards judge and institutionalised public servant based in Sydney. This and over 450 more book reviews can be found on his website Pile By the Bed.