Cover image of "Independence Square," in which a detective investigates the Russian opposition

Russia holds the Crimea. But Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is nine months in the future as the tenth in the series of Arkady Renko novels opens in Moscow. The long-suffering police detective has been confined to make-work desk duty by his seemingly all-powerful boss, Prosecutor Zurin. And Arkady is living alone again. The woman he loves, the crusading journalist Tatiana, has left him for St. Petersburg. There, she has signed up as a correspondent for The New York Times. And his adopted son, Zhenya, is again declining to move back in with him, even though the young man is homeless. So, with time on his hands, Arkady agrees to help when the gangster known as “Bronson” pleads with him to track down his missing daughter, Karina Abakova. And soon Arkady will enter the dangerous world of the Russian opposition.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

It’s dangerous to be in the Russian opposition

Karina is first violin in a string quartet that plays for modest fees from time to time and busks outside subway stations. But it’s not her music that seems to be the cause of her disappearance. She is also a senior member of the anti-government group Forum. And Zhenya’s friend Alex Levin is active in the group, too. So, when Alex is killed, and Arkady has seen FSB agents surveilling a Forum demonstration, Zhenya implies that Karina may be dead at the agency’s hands. Soon, Arkady is off and running on the violinist’s trail in the company of her best friend, Elena. And that takes them to Ukraine, where they arrive just four months before the invasion.

Arkady and Elena land in Kyiv only to find themselves embroiled in a new mystery involving her father. And then Arkady is astonished to see something on a television news program that adds an entirely new wrinkle to the story of Karina’s disappearance. To Arkady’s astonishment, then, his beloved Tatiana turns up in Kyiv. Smith piles mystery atop mystery as his story rushes to a surprising conclusion.

Independence Square (Arkady Renko #10) by Martin Cruz Smith (2023) 272 pages ★★★★☆

Photo of Russian opposition leader speaking at an anti-government demonstration
Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, the model for Leonid Lebedev in the novel, speaks to a demonstration shortly before he was poisoned, probably by the FSB. He is now in precarious health in a maximum-security prison east of Moscow, serving a sentence that seems to get longer with every passing year. Image: ABC News

In passing, excursions into history and medical science

Every good mystery novelist packs each book in a series with information gained from research on several topics designed to intrigue. And Martin Cruz Smith proves all over again that he’s good at this in Independence Square. In the novel, you’ll learn a little about the fascinating history of the Crimean Tatars, an Islamic Asiatic group once deported en masse to Uzbekistan by Joseph Stalin. About the Russian opposition and the apathy and fatalism it faces among the Russian public. And about Parkinson’s Disease. Arkady is diagnosed with the disease, and Smith painstakingly catalogs the symptoms. (He himself lives with Parkinson’s, as I learned when checking him out online.) And he reveals a little more of Arkady’s backstory, with details about his brutal father, a general in the Red Army known as the “Butcher of Ukraine” in World War II.

There’s also a provocative aside about Vladimir Putin. “People amused and appalled themselves by trying to work out how much Putin was worth, and the figures went up to $275 billion and beyond.” But numbers are basically beside the point. In reality, Putin is much like Tsar Nicholas II, who reportedly wrote down his “occupation” in Russia’s first census late in the nineteenth century as “Owner of Russia.”

About the author

Photo of Martin Cruz Smith, author of this novel in which Arkady Renko investigates the Russian opposition
Martin Cruz Smith. Image: Oregon Live

Martin Cruz Smith was born in 1942 in Reading, Pennsylvania to a jazz musician and a nightclub singer. They moved around a great deal in his childhood, as you’ll learn from his own short piece about himself on his author website. He is of partly Pueblo, Spanish, Senecu del Sur, and Yaqui ancestry.

Smith received a BA in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania in 1964 and worked as a journalist for the balance of the decade. He turned to writing books early in the 1970s and published eighteen novels in that decade, including one adapted to film. With the release in 1981 of Gorky Park, he began the Arkady Renko series, for which he is best known. Smith now lives in San Rafael, California, with his family.

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