In an Arkady Renko novel, a look inside Russia under Putin

Russia under Putin: Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith

Mikhail Gorbachev, who ought to know, recently declared that the regime of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev is hard to distinguish from the old Communist regime because both are grounded in authoritarianism. Arkady Renko, the investigator hero of Martin Cruz Smith’s successful series of novels about crime and punishment, first in the USSR and now in Russia, would surely agree.

For nearly 30 years, Renko has plumbed the depths of Russia’s deepest and darkest recesses in search of justice and found little but scorn and resistance as his reward. The seemingly bottomless corruption of the Soviet legal system – the courts, the prosecutors, and the police – is indistinguishable from that of today’s. Only the criminals have changed: they’re billionaires now, victors in the latter-day scramble for spoils unleashed by the fall of Communism.

Three Stations (Arkady Renko #7) by Martin Cruz Smith (2010) 258 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)

Three Stations, locale of most of the action in the novel of the same name, is a transportation hub in Moscow where three underground rail lines meet. It’s a place where hustlers, pimps, and young prostitutes just in from the countryside mingle with teenage thugs, under the eye, and often the direction, of the police. The desolate setting seems carefully chosen to mirror the straits in which investigator Renko finds himself as Three Stations begins: suspended, ignored, and on the verge of dismissal for being too good at his job.

In the course of this fast-moving and engaging story, Renko, disobeying orders as always, immerses himself in investigating the murder of a young woman whom his superiors wish to ignore. She has been declared a prostitute and her murder unworthy of further inquiry, but Renko knows better. As he delves ever more deeply into the matter, he becomes involved with the once and future billionaire owner of a string of casinos, a legendary ballerina and her son, and a mysterious young woman who has come to Moscow in search of her baby.

The tale is a good one. But what is most remarkable about Three Stations, as is the case with every one of the seven Arkady Renko novels since 1981, is the compelling way that Smith sets the scene. It is difficult to believe that the author lives in Marin County and never set foot in the Soviet Union before researching Gorky Park, his best-selling  first book in the series. If you’ve spent time in Russia, you’ll be convinced that Smith has lived there longer. If for no other reason, Three Stations is worth reading to gain an inside look at Russia under Putin and understand what life must be like for millions of Muscovites.

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