Cover image of "Three Stations" by Martin Cruz Smith, a novel about Russia under Vladimir Putin

Mikhail Gorbachev, who ought to know, declared some years ago that Vladimir Putin’s government is hard to distinguish from the old Communist regime. Arkady Renko, the investigator hero of Martin Cruz Smith’s successful series of novels about crime and punishment, first in the USSR and later in Russia under Vladimir Putin, would surely agree. And even though Gorbachev made his comment more than a decade ago, and this novel was published shortly afterward, the picture it paints of Russian law enforcement holds all too true today. If anything, the legal system has become even more blatantly an arm of the state—as some of the few remaining civil liberties are stripped away amid the invasion of Ukraine.

Bottomless corruption in law enforcement

For nearly 40 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. Yet nothing has fundamentally changed in Russia under Vladimir Putin.

Three Stations (Arkady Renko #7) by Martin Cruz Smith (2010) 258 pages ★★★★☆

Interior view of a Moscow subway station, like the setting in this novel about Russia under Vladimir Putin
View inside a Moscow Metro station. Image:

An investigator who is too good at his job

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. They have declared her 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.

A setting that rings all too true

The tale is a good one. But what is most remarkable about Three Stations, as is the case with every one of the eight other Arkady Renko novels published since 1981, is the compelling way that Smith sets the scene. It is difficult to believe that the author lives in Marin County, California, 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 Vladimir Putin and understand what life must be like for millions of Muscovites.

About the author

Photo of Martin Cruz Smith, author of this novel about Russia under Vladimir Putin
Martin Cruz Smith. Image: Wikipedia

Martin Cruz Smith (1942-) is best known for the nine novels to date featuring detective Arkady Renko. The series debuted in 1981 with the publication of Gorky Park, which was adapted to film in 1983 in a production starring William Hurt and Lee Marvin. Smith holds a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania. He is partly of Native American and Spanish descent.

For more reading

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