17 November 2011 6 Comments

Renko Rules

This is a crime fiction blog. So we 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.

6 Responses to “Renko Rules”

  1. Ruth Paget 17 November 2011 at 7:41 am #

    Red Square is my favorite book by him for completely throwing you off base throughout the text. I had empathy for Renko’s frozen hands in Polar Star and learned some things about rinky dink cars in Havana Bay.

    Ruth :)

  2. Tom Mulrooney 17 November 2011 at 6:21 pm #

    I am delighted to see that you admire Martin Criz Smith, as do I. I think I have read all his books, certainly all the Renko ones. It reassures me about my good taste to find that a real expert in the genre agrees with me.

    I don’t know that I have read all your posts on this blog and I’m not sure what qualifies a book for your review. But if you haven’t discussed the works of C J Sansom, I think you should. Maybe I’ll get another gold star for good taste. I think the Matthew Shardlake series is splendid.

  3. Matt Beynon Rees 18 November 2011 at 3:43 am #

    Tom, I think you count as an expert in the genre, particularly as you’re enjoying Shardlake. …Ruth: the atmosphere in Polar Star was done with particular physicality. I read that, though Cruz Smith was barred from the USSR after Gorky Park, he talked his way onto a fishing boat operating between Siberia and Alaska. So all those uncomfortable details are spot on for a reason.

  4. Ruth Paget 18 November 2011 at 4:23 am #

    I guess my cooking sometimes rates for physicality when I peel shells from frozen, raw shrimp to fry for gambas al ajillo. You lose all sensation in your fingertips especially and could easily cut yourself and never know it.

    Maybe I should do some cooking detective stories. You can poison a lot of people in various ways in a kitchen as well as detect the poisoning with insider knowledge. No magnifying glass for me. I could prove stuff with an instant-read thermometer. I’m laughing right now.

    Ruth :)

  5. Matt Beynon Rees 18 November 2011 at 4:37 am #

    Shrimp can be lethal. My mother is almost as afraid of them as she is suspicious of people with garlic on their breath…

  6. Ruth Paget 28 November 2011 at 4:45 am #

    Tic tacs for me in my trench coat and hat that covers half of my face.

    Actually, now that I’m in Germany, I have to modify my Mediterranean Diet a bit. There’s more cabbage in slaw form, apples, and mushrooms in what I eat and prepare. I like Eintopf stews as well. Bread is really wonderful here especially the ones with seeds on it. I like the cheese, too, but all the ham seems to come from Italy (not that I’m complaining).

    Ruth Paget :)

    Ruth :)

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