In 1971, with the Cold War alive and well in Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, Martin Cruz Smith had the idea of setting a mystery novel in the Soviet Union. He says his original concept was “to write a story about an American detective who shows the Russian police how American cops solve crime.” Smith adds, “Once I went there, it quickly dawned on me that the story’s central character should not be American but Russian.”
Almost 50 years later, with the Soviet Union gone and a different but no less fraught relationship between the U.S. and Russia, that Russian central character, Arkady Renko, is still an honest cop in a crooked system, trying to achieve a measure of temporary justice. Smith’s ninth Renko novel, The Siberian Dilemma, will be published by Simon & Schuster in November.
In the new book, Renko, a senior investigator for the Moscow prosecutor, finds himself on thin ice when he travels to Siberia in search of his girlfriend, Tatiana, an investigative journalist, who has fallen out of touch after she became friendly with Mikhail Kuznetsov, a billionaire setting himself up as a serious political rival to Putin himself. Inevitably, Renko’s quest ends up enmeshing him in a murder case.
Smith’s Renko books have been both commercial and critical successes. Earlier this year, Smith was named a grand master by the Mystery Writers of America—an acknowledgement, the group says, of his “important contributions to this genre, as well as for a body of work that is both significant and of consistent high quality.” Though his lesser-known works have also received plaudits—he’s nabbed two Edgar nominations for his Roman Gray series, featuring a New York City antiques dealer turned sleuth—the Renko books have made the most impact.
But Renko’s literary life almost didn’t happen. Smith says that when he returned from the Soviet Union in 1971 to talk with his publisher at Putnam about his revelation concerning his lead’s nationality, that publisher was “horrified.” Thus began a tug of war over the fate of Renko.
“I finally asked him if I could buy the book back and go to another publisher,” Smith says. “He said no, he wouldn’t sell it back to me; he would publish it but ‘without enthusiasm.’ So I kept writing Gorky Park and put the pages in a drawer while I wrote articles and paperback originals. This went on for 10 years, and in the meantime, I became a better writer. The publishing gods move in mysterious ways. My publisher was replaced by another who allowed me to buy back my novel.”
In 1981, Gorky Park was published by Random House, landing the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list and striking a chord with American readers who had, not many months earlier, overwhelmingly voted into the Oval Office a staunch anti-Communist politician who would go on to dub the Soviet Union an evil empire.
Smith started Renko’s fictional career off with a triple murder in Moscow’s Gorky Park; two men and a woman had been shot by someone who then mutilated their faces and fingers to hinder identification. But as with the subsequent books in the series, the whodunit aspect is matched by a convincing depiction of life in Russia. That warts-and-all portrayal of the U.S.S.R., though popular with American readers, wasn’t viewed quite as warmly by the Politburo; the book, which was popular with Soviet dissidents such as Nobel Peace Prize–winner Andrei Sakharov, was banned in the U.S.S.R., and Smith was persona non grata there for many years—a backhanded tribute to his perspicacity in observing and depicting Soviet life.
The long path that Gorky Park took from its author’s mind to bookstore shelves is paralleled by Smith’s own professional journey. He was born in 1942 in Pennsylvania, the son of jazz musicians, and went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania. “I originally had wanted to become a sociologist but couldn’t handle statistics in college and turned to creative writing instead,” he says.
Smith’s professional writing career did not start out particularly creatively; he worked for the Pennsylvania Press Association, where he grew bored of assignments covering state government, before he became a writer for a local tabloid, the Philadelphia Daily News. His first novel, about a young speechwriter working for Spiro Agnew, has never seen the light of day, but The Indians Won, about an alternative history in which Native Americans, after Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn, went on to form an independent nation that became a nuclear power, was published by Belmont Books in 1970. The Roman Grey mysteries followed. While Gorky Park underwent its long gestation, Smith wrote other books to earn some money, under pseudonyms such as Simon Quinn, whose six-volume Inquisitor series features a hit man working for the Vatican.
Ultimately, Smith’s persistence and hard work paid off with Gorky Park, which he says was heavily influenced by the Swedish mystery writers Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall. “They handled the balancing act between sociology and suspense by attacking real problems in Sweden through their mysteries,” Smith says. “They set out to examine 10 different problems in their country and wrote 10 wonderful books doing so. I was fascinated by Russia and attempted to do the same.”
Smith’s series has realized his ambition to produce books that discuss real issues. “Russia has always had an impact on the U.S.,” he says. “Look at the influence that Russia has had on American elections. In the ’80s, I was driven to write about the effect hard-line Communism and perestroika had on the people of Russia. Nothing was more dangerous than the atomic accident in Chernobyl, as portrayed in Wolves Eat Dogs. In Stalin’s Ghost, I wrote about the effect Stalin still had on Russia, and in Three Stations, I wrote about the plight of homeless children there. In Tatiana, I examined the deadly consequences for investigative journalists like Anna Politkovskaya.”
Smith is no armchair novelist—he has returned to Russia often for research since the ban on his entry was lifted. His commitment to accuracy even led him to visit Chernobyl, where he spent a week inside the restricted-access area surrounding the nuclear power plant, carrying a dosimeter.
“When in Russia, I interview the people,” Smith says. “Russians are the fuel for my writing. While it’s important for people to understand what is going on in the government, I want them to know the wonderful humor and intelligence of the Russian people—something they may not catch from just reading the news.”
Asked about how Russia has changed since his first trip there, Smith says, “The oligarchs are now well established, and with Putin there’s been a return to one-man rule, which has characterized the country’s system ever since Genghis Khan. The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Since 1995, Smith has been afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, which he made public in 2013. The illness has made research and writing progressively harder for him, and he has relied on the assistance of his wife, Emily Arnold Smith. When asked about his next book, Smith responded, “I would like to take Parkinson’s disease and wring its ugly neck. It has made writing more difficult lately, but I intend to write shorter pieces. We persevere.”
That refusal to passively accept fate is a quality shared by Renko, who several books back was shot and now lives with a bullet lodged in his head. And it’s a recurrent theme in The Siberian Dilemma.
In the novel, Renko describes the eponymous dilemma to a friend: “A fisherman is on a frozen lake. He moves around, listening all the time for the ice cracking beneath his feet, ready to jump back to thicker ice if necessary, but sometimes he’s not quick enough. The ice breaks. He falls in.... If he pulls himself out of the water onto the ice, he’ll freeze to death in seconds, a minute at most. If he stays in the water, he’ll die of hypothermia in five.”
Renko believes that the man should get out of the water, because he’s then not just waiting to perish. “The lesson is it’s better to take action than be passive,” he says. “Better to fight than to surrender, even if you know you’re going to die.”
Lenny Picker is a writer living in New York City.