Saturday, June 12, 1999

H.J. Kirchhoff

p. D3.

Renko's back and there's going to be trouble

The troubled hero of Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park and Red Square finds death and redemption on the streets of Havana.

Exploring the exotic underworld of modern Havana

Exploring the exotic underworld of modern Havana DAVID STORK/Random House

By Martin Cruz
Smith Random, 329 pages
Reviewed by H.J. Kirchhoff

Martin Cruz Smith's previous novel, Rose, was a historical murder mystery set in the Victorian coal-mining town of Wigan. It was a not-unwelcome change of pace from his brilliant series of thrillers starring Moscow police investigator Arkady Renko, introduced in 1981's Gorky Park and brought back for Polar Star and Red Square. But as much as I liked Rose, I'm glad to see Renko back.

In Cruz Smith's newest, Havana Bay, Renko has just arrived in Cuba in answer to an anonymous warning from the Russian embassy there that his old adversary and friend Sergei Pribluda is in trouble. But on the way into Havana from the airport, he is diverted to a crime scene in the bay of the title, where Cuban police are about to recover Pribluda's body from the junk-filled inlet where it has come to rest. Renko's job is "very simple," says the officer in charge: "You see the body, identify the body and then go home."

"Sounds simple," Renko agrees.

But as Cruz Smith's many fans could tell you, it's never simple. The body in question has been floating on an inner tube for a couple of weeks in the sweltering ocean, and its natural deterioration is exacerbated by the botched recovery by the Cuban police: The inner tube is punctured; body parts begin to fall off, bones separate, skin sloughs and liquefies — and the whole grand guignol spectacle is recorded on videotape, in front of a crowd of hooting spectators… and Arkady, the hated Moscow investigator.

As the gruesomely comic scene concludes, Renko remarks to his driver-translator Rufo: "I think identification is going to be a little more complicated than the captain imagined."

But there's more, complication-wise. Renko has decided to commit suicide, here in Havana, away from the fuss and bother of Moscow. The love of his life, Irina — the Siberian actor, dissident and defector in Gorky Park, who returned to Moscow with Renko in Red Square — has died as the result of a bizarre hospital error. He is bereft, and on the outs with his Moscow superiors (their official designation is "inattention"); criminals rule his beloved Russia and he hasn't been paid in six months. In a shabby apartment supplied by the embassy, using an embalming hypodermic stolen from the Havana morgue, Renko starts to kill himself. Only to be interrupted by Rufo, who tries to kill him. Defending himself instinctively, Renko plunges the six-inch needle into Rufo's ear and, watching the startled assassin die, says: "All you had to do was wait." Cruz Smith is certainly not afraid of irony.

Intrigued by the fact that someone — besides himself — wants him dead, Renko pursues the investigation of Pribluda's death. It's not an easy task. He speaks no Spanish, his embassy wants nothing to do with him or Pribluda, and this is post-Soviet Cuba: Russians are the hated former taskmasters, and also the big brothers who broke their word and abandoned the faith. The sugar daddies these days are American tourists, whose dollars fuel the trade in youthful prostitutes, called jinatera, jockeys, "especially descriptive of a girl astride a bouncing pig."

Aided, at first with only the greatest reluctance, by Havana police detective Ofelia Osorio, and interfered with and even physically attacked by nearly every other police official in Havana, Renko doggedly sets out to interview Pribluda's friends and associates, pursuing the faint, complex trail of clues that leads through the exotic underworld of modern Havana.

Detective Osorio is a single mother with two kids and her own mother living in — a tart-tongued wannabe capitalist who doesn't approve of her daughter's lifestyle or career choices, but who rather likes Renko. Osorio shares the narrative viewpoint with Renko, and her personal and domestic travails amount to an engaging and convincing portrait of day-to-day life in present-day Cuba, even as her observations on Renko offer a fresh perspective on the Russian detective.

This novel offers everything Cruz Smith's fans have come to expect — great plot and characters, droll dialogue and lots of action — plus the lush and throbbing portrait of Havana, a storied capital with a florid past and a decadent present. It can't miss.

H.J. Kirchhoff is an editor in the Books section and paperback books columnist.

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Created: June 13, 1999
Last modified: January 31, 2001
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