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Onyx reviews: Three Stations by
Martin Cruz Smith
By day, Komsomol Square, site of the termini of the Leningrad, Yaroslavl, and Kazansky train lines, is busy, comparatively safe except for
petty theft, and traveled by many Russians who don't give the place a second thought.
At night, the area's character changes completely, becoming the domain of pimps,
prostitutes, thieves, runaways, the homeless, drug dealers and drug addicts.
In Martin Cruz Smith's seventh novel to feature Arkady Renko (protagonist of Gorky
Park and, more recently, Stalin's Ghost),
the investigator is on borrowed time with Prosecutor Zurin. Again. He's
either on the verge of suspension or dismissal—the reports are
conflicting. In either case, Zurin won't assign any cases to him, so he's at loose
ends, casting about for a way to fill the hours.
When the body of a half-naked woman is found in a trailer behind one of the
three train stations, Renko suspects that she wasn't simply a prostitute
dead from an overdose. Her body is free of the expected marks and appears to have been posed. However, his theory isn't
popular, and the
only support he has on his rogue investigation comes in the form of his old friend and
colleague Sergeant Victor Orlov, who is falling-down drunk when Three Stations
opens. The case perks them up; Orlov manages to stay mostly sober and
Renko calls in favors to get more information about the victim, including
goading an equally out-of-favor coroner into performing an unauthorized autopsy.
Their only real clue found at the putative crime scene is an invitation to a high-society charity ball devoted to
raising money for abused and neglected children.
At the same time, a teenaged girl
traveling "Hard Class" into Moscow is drugged and her baby is stolen. Renko's foster son,
Zhenya, a prodigy known as the Genius who hustles chess games for money,
feels compelled to help Maya, even though she doesn't particularly want his assistance
and won't let him contact Renko. Zhenya ignores all the rules he lives by, all
the carefully cultivated boundaries that make him a successful con artist,
revealing his secrets to defend Maya against the predatory juveniles who roam
the square and an even greater threat that followed her to Moscow.
Zhenya and Renko have a strained relationship. Renko often goes days
without hearing from the boy, who dwells in a casino that was shut down after
people realized that its proximity to the Kremlin might send the wrong message. There are no casinos on the front
lawn of the White House, after all. Its closure is thought by its owners to be temporary; it's fully
stocked and ready to be opened when sentiments change again, which happens often
Smith's Moscow is not pleasant. It is populated by the
poor and disenfranchised alongside the very rich, who pretend the lower classes don't
exist. Renko is informed that he can't park in an upscale neighborhood because
it has been designated a Lada-free zone. One Russian-made car can depreciate the
property values of an entire city block, a snooty woman tells him. The police are corrupt, politicians are
corrupt, and the rich are especially corrupt, in part because their fortunes are
being threatened by police and political corruption. That Russia has not made a
success of capitalism surprises no one; however, in the current economic climate
the Russians are coming to believe that perhaps no one can make capitalism work.
Renko, for all his gloomy, dour demeanor, is the antithesis of his home city—beyond
corruption. He's a Russian analog to Ian Rankin's Inspector
Rebus, a hard-drinking loner driven by higher ideals, which usually gets him suspended from his job at least once each book.
Renko knows the dark side of Moscow as intimately as Rebus knows Edinburgh's
Smith resists the temptation to link the parallel plots by
anything other than geography. Three Stations is a relatively brief novel, but it is full of high
flying action and a memorable car chase involving a luxury vehicle and a Lada. There's a shootout with a dwarf, a serial murderer with an artistic bent, a
brush with a billionaire and one with a photographer who knew Hemingway, Castro
and other celebrities. While all the crimes are solved and the guilty parties
identified, they aren't all brought to justice. Zurin's hatred of Renko is so strong that he is willing to let
murderers get away rather than validate Renko's investigation. But by the end
Renko's career is safe for another day, whether he likes it or not.
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