• U.S.

The Texture Of Chaos

4 minute read
John Skow




THE BOTTOM LINE: This is a grand Russian cop opera for lowbrows, with the battered hero still standing at the end.

Red Square, the third adventure of Arkady Renko, the Russian detective of Gorky Park and Polar Star, touches the imagination in a powerful, brooding way that seems very Russian. Give or take Richard Price’s Clockers, a story of New Jersey cops and dope sellers that has some of the same strengths, it may be the best thriller to appear in several years. But Edmund Wilson’s contemptuous dismissal of detective stories still lashes: Is it feebleminded to care who killed Roger Ackroyd?

Or does Wilson’s wisecrack fit? He had in mind inch-deep, twittering, murder-in-the-vicarage whodunits. We do care about Red Square, though not really because of the puzzle — better than routine but less than grand-master quality — that the author sets up and then solves. We know what to expect. The shabby, battered hero, Arkady, unravels blackest villainy, as he must, from Moscow to Munich, on to Berlin and back to Moscow; unbelievably escapes, as he must, a variety of murderous attacks; leaves a trail of defunct hard guys; and, as we knew he would be when we opened the book, is still standing, bleeding lightly, at the end.

If this were opera, and it comes close, the formulaic plot and unlikely heroics wouldn’t matter, and it wouldn’t be necessary to explain that it is what Arkady’s obligatory adventures let us experience along the way that stirs the mind. So let’s say that Red Square’s music is extraordinary, and never mind the libretto. Or if that’s too flossy, say that the story’s texture, the dark background against which Arkady moves and about which he shrugs and thinks his wry thoughts, is real in a way that seems bitterly true. Clearly the thriller form, with no artistic expectations whatsoever, can free the best writers to produce superb stuff. Quite casually, between car chases and dead bodies, Martin Cruz Smith has drawn stinging portraits in caricature of three cities under attack by the future.

Sketching quickly, letting a line stand for a landscape, the author shows us Moscow in the month before last year’s coup. Marxism’s fragments still clog streets and government offices. The ruble is nearly worthless. Murderous Chechen bandits and corrupt former party officials war bloodily over control of the new capitalism, which turns out to be the old black market grown great. Ordinary people stand in lines for food, and when they have time, go to work.

Arkady investigates the killing of an informant, a glossy black marketeer, and is relieved of his duties when he gets too close to the truth. He blackmails his boss for an air ticket and follows the trail to Munich. The corruption here is prosperity gone to fat. Needing to create a diversion in a parking garage, Arkady jostles a swollen, glistening car. Its alarm screams. Another jostled car and another; the German miracle bawls its rage. On to post-Wall Berlin, awash in refugees and resentments, smelling of money, poverty and developers’ schemes. Arkady has found his old love Irina, the Siberian beauty lost in the West since Gorky Park, and they spend the night together on the tiled floor of a raw, unfinished apartment.

They return to Moscow, Orpheus and Eurydice heading in the wrong direction, just in time for the coup. Arkady, of course, has dived one more time into the murk of his investigation and come up with a kind of answer, which involves a massive theft of Russian art missing since World War II. Dazed and wondering — Irina seeing Russia for the first time in years, he leaking blood from a knife wound — they join the huge crowd of unarmed Muscovites who have gathered to protect the Parliament Building from attack. A helicopter drops a star shell . . .

It’s a marvelous ending, something thrillers often lack as their puzzles are made plain and prosaic. Author Smith, the thriller writer, has never hidden his sentimental fondness for Russians. Arkady, a genius at disbelief and mulish stubbornness, has stood for the rest, and as we lose him in the mass of people awaiting the attack that will not come, the rest are shown to be like him.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com