Wednesday, July 25, 2018


Please consider this an intermission in my weekly reporting on the eight-episode series featuring Martin Cruz Smith's incredible Russian police detective Arkady Renko. I've already reported on two, as you know—Gorky Park and Red Square--and will include in this retrospective details from another two—Polar Star and Havana Bay--which leaves, if my sluggish math prowess serves me correctly, four to go. Sort of dreading, I am, to even crack the cover of the last one, Tatiana, for fear Renko by then will be confined to a wheelchair. Not that this would even begin to stop him from solving another hideously complicated murder with mortally dangerous adversaries who brutalize and mutilate him to the very edge of life, nor interfere noticeably with his enjoying the episodic requisite deeply meaningful sexual’s just that I don’t believe my imagination could survive unharmed picturing Raymond Burr in the Renko role for any longer than an SNL skit with, say, Alec Baldwin or a Chris Farley clone on the wheels.

Что, черт возьми, ты думал, Смит?
 That said (the one act of violence I would gladly compromise my pacifist convictions for would be to slap the pus out whatever idiot set the fashion for narrative transitioning with that silly—moronic, actually—redundant expression. That said: Jesus, makes me want to smash something!!! But as we are a herd-oriented species I, too, am stuck with it until another idiotic coined cliché seizes the “intelligentsia” by its fashionable throat). Where was I? Oh, yes, that said, there’s always the chance Arkady Renko by book eight will have lost faith in his creator, have revolted against the devastating, mutilating circumstances Smith has prescribed for him, and be solving the murders a la Nero Wolfe without ever leaving his domicile or engaging physically with anyone other than the requisite deeply meaningful sexual partner smitten by his tragic, existentially tormented, Russian eyes.
The first femme is Irina, whom Renko meets in Gorky Park investigating the murder of three young people, and for whom he takes a knife that nearly kills him after she shoots the crooked prosecutor to death, for which he takes the blame and helps her escape to New York, which gets him exiled to Siberia for being an “unreliable” Communist. That knife, he is told in the hospital, “penetrated your colon, stomach and diaphragm, and also took a nick out of your liver. In fact, the one thing your friend missed was what he was probably aiming for, the abdominal aorta. Still, you had no blood pressure when you came in; then we had to contend with infection, peritonitis, filling you with antibiotics with one hand and draining you with the other.”
He meets the second femme, Susan Hightower, in exile while gutting fish aboard the Polar Star, a Soviet factory ship participating in a joint venture with American fishermen in the Bering Sea. Susan Hightower, head of an American delegation of observers aboard the ship is a tough cookie who only reluctantly cooperates with Renko after he’s drafted to investigate the death of a beautiful young promiscuous galley mate whose body turns up in a netload of fish and leads Renko to evidence of smuggling and spying aboard the ship. Susan Hightower eventually seduces Renko, who has several close calls with mortality at the hands of fellow crew members who club him, lock him in a freezer, stab him with an icepick, try to push him overboard into the freezing sea, and rag him tediously about being an “unreliable” Communist.
Back in Moscow in his old job as an investigator, for a new prosecutor, in a Russia that’s coming apart at its Communist seams, he and Irina reunite! It’s a tad rough going at first but eventually, after Renko solves the ingenious murder of an informant/underworld wheeler-dealer, they consummate their reunion in the old-fashioned way, and are last seen hand-in-hand, strolling amongst the thousands of “unreliable Communist” citizens celebrating the coup that ended Gorbachev’s reign and nearly a century of tyrannical Red rule. I believe Renko survived this outing without any new scratches, punctures, or bruises, but that’s a brief respite, to be made up in spades in Havana where he flies to identify the remains of what is believed to be his old KGB adversary-cum-friend Sergei Pribluda.

Here he and cute, divorced little Cuban Detective Ofelia Osorio fall for each other in the old-fashioned way after a prickly start in the context of Cubans hating Russians and not giving a damn if the rotting corpse found floating in a fisherman’s innertube was Pribluda or Stalin himself. Of course, the plot thickens quickly and intriguingly and Renko’s Russian consulate-assigned translator tries to stab him to death just as Renko is pricking his artery with an air-filled hypodermic to do to himself what the translator’s there to do for the mysterious conspiracy. One of those nick-of-time situations in which the struggle ends with the translator dead on the floor, needle penetrating his brain, and Renko deciding now is not quite the right time for what he has in mind, for which we’ll keep mum for those of you who wish to read Havana Bay to find out for yourselves. He also gets clubbed half to death with an aluminum baseball bat and shot through an arm with a speargun. I think this sums up all of the injuries. Physical injuries. Most of the mental ones he only hints at and then invariably with a dismissive smartass remark.
In trying to fathom Renko’s long-suffering endurance—even tolerance—of these insults to body, mind, and soul, I’ve concluded his trust in Martin Cruz Smith has got to be so complete and abiding he somehow knows Smith is not going to leave him twisting, the wind. Twisting once, maybe, and maybe part of another go-round but never more than that before cutting him down, closing his cuts, sewing him up, giving him a recuperative bottle of Moskovskaya vodka, and getting him righteously laid. His droll sense of humor, tho hardly riotous, is consistent and seems to bear him up long enough to get him out of his corner and back into the ring for the next seemingly impossible opponent.

Actually a quote from Stalin
Wolves Eat Dogs is next. I promise I’ll try to do something different with it!

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Sunday, July 22, 2018

GIVE ME YOUR HAND – Megan Abbott

A couple of years ago a friend dismissed me with words I'd never have imagined could sting so deep. Her voice, distantly glacial, informed me, "You're just like all the rest."
My response was immediate, born of startled disbelief and a welling panic. "No I'm not. I am not!" I swore I would prove I was different from the others, even if I wasn't sure just what that meant. Yet I knew intuitively however wrong it must be, she'd made up her mind. There would be no dispensation.
Yesterday it came to me while reading Give Me Your Hand: In certain primal, irredeemable ways beyond my capacity to mitigate or alter, I am like my brothers. Sadly, I see now with a clearer eye how justly we deserve the consequences of our behavior toward our sisters under any conceit to the contrary. I owe this long overdue insight to Megan Abbott’s piercing, unnerving new novel, which spotlights one of the darker pockets of la difference. Jarring my Paleo impulses with a 21st-century sensibility, Give Me Your Hand does bring hope a greater understanding of ourselves may at least temper the vive at both poles of its spectrum.
And wouldn’t you know, to this end science is probing in a field so alien to me its density added significant weight to an academic catastrophe decades ago from which I’ve never fully recovered: chemistry. In this instance more specifically, biochemistry. The novel’s landscape of academic treachery and dangerous laboratories provides an ironic backdrop for Abbott’s masterfully dark tale of Kit and Diane, two brilliant young women vying for a shot at a highly coveted job researching the causes of premenstrual rage that drives some of their gender to self-mutilation, suicide, and murder.

Kit and Diane have sort of known each other since high school, running track, sharing secrets, competing scholastically—the smartest of their peers. Yet there’s something missing, or rather something present, that keeps them emotionally at odds. The specific “thing” that’s to blame is kept from us awhile, fairly obvious tho it is, but by confirming our guess early on, Abbott hooks us and reels our curiosity into deeper, uncharted waters. The expression suspense is killing me takes on pulse-quickening authenticity as her narrative sprints toward its climax.
Give Me Your Hand reads like a diary, and the intimacy of Kit's thoughts is as discomfiting as it fascinates. The sensation’s eerily akin to trespassing on someone’s privacy. Things we shouldn’t know. About them, about us. The “us” here is my gender, and we don’t come off looking so good. A cast of recognizable caricatures for the context, drawn with an embarrassing, Shakespearean accuracy. This motley crew of pricks, slicks, oddballs, and rogues comprises an appropriately nonsupporting cast that provides ballast for the novel’s essential theme, that the historical figurative screwing of women continues unabated. What gives the job that’s enticing Kit and Diane such precious cachet is the traditional dearth of interest in the scientific community for so vital a female mystery.
Everyone will ask you why you chose to study PMDD,” Dr. Lena Severin says in a pitch for the research team she’s assembling. “And you will tell them how underfunded research into women’s conditions is. You will tell them there are five times as many studies on erectile dysfunction as on PMS and that you’re happy to play a role in changing that.” Here’s Kit explaining PMDD to us ignoramuses, who so dearly need to know:

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder, that’s the subject of the study. A set of symptoms with no agreed-upon cause. Some kind of catastrophic monthly dance between hormones and the feeling and thinking parts of the brain. Striking every month, it’s like PMS only much, much worse. Debilitating mood swings, uncontrollable rage. Abnormal signaling among cells, that’s what scientists only recently discovered. An intrinsic difference in the way these women respond to sex hormones. After decades of doubt about whether it even existed, now science has proven PMDD is not only real, it’s part of the genetic makeup. The women can’t help it, are slaves to it…
At its worst, it’s led women to self-destructive acts. Or destructive ones. In the lab, we’ve all heard the horror stories: Women in its grip hitting their boyfriends over the head with frying pans, rear-ending their children’s teachers’ cars in the school parking lot. Road rage, baby shaking, worse.

Behind their hands, behind their smirks, some of the postdocs call it Hatchet PMS. Medusa Menses,” she tells us of her lab mates. “They’re all men except me, and they can’t even talk about it without twisting their mouths or ducking their heads or making Carrie or Lizzie Borden jokes.”

Megan Abbott
Abbott describes in an NPR interview how she became interested in PMDD as a topic to explore in a novel. A deep, fearsome mystery science has merely scratched the surface of understanding. Educated fiction is a good place to start for the rest of us. At least it can give us a hand in stepping away from ignorance. We need more of that every day. I now know my friend was right. I was like all the rest. Still am, to some degree, though I’m not quite as dumb as then. 


Wednesday, July 18, 2018

RED SQUARE – Martin Cruz Smith

Of the several reasons Arkady Renko is my favorite fictional Russian detective, I almost hate to admit the prime one is his name: easy to pronounce and easier to spell than, say, "Sheremetyevo" or "Porfiry Petrovich." Russian language issues might also be why Martin Cruz Smith in Red Square refers to his characters mostly by their first names, as it would hardly do to call Arkady Renko "Renko" and then be stuck with interminable, tongue-twisting surnames for everyone else. It could simply be a cost-saving measure—less ink, fewer pages, not so prone to typos.

Okay, that's my facetious argument for preferring Arkady over all of the other Russian detectives, none of whom come to mind at the moment. More maturely, my sentiment concurs with Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's in his New York Times review of Red Square, that "poor put-upon Arkady is so doggedly honest and unassuming."

How can we not like a guy who makes fun of himself? Like this: "Arkady had left Polina and hurried home in time to catch Irina’s first broadcast. Drinks with one woman, then rushing to the voice of another. What a sophisticated life, he thought." And this: "Arkady caught another glance of himself in the bar mirror. Grimmer than he thought, not the kind of face that woke up expecting sunshine."

Grim, yes, he’s Russian. Yet, there is no stereotypical crying in his vodka. He keeps plodding forward, brushing negatives aside with a self-effacing appreciation of irony. He’s a hopeless but stubbornly stoic romantic. A realist with innocent dreams he shares with no one but us.

In this, his third outing of the series' seven, Arkady is back in Moscow at his old job investigating crime, for a new city prosecutor. He'd gotten in deep doodo investigating a triple murder in Gorky Park, and was banished to Siberia, where state authorities tortured him (unsuccessfully) to rat out his lover, Irina, whom he'd helped escape to the U.S. Meanwhile, he lived on menial jobs in Siberia's freezing weather. He worked outdoors as a guard, labored in a reindeer slaughterhouse, and spent a year gutting fish on a Soviet factory ship in the North Pacific (setting of Polar Star, second in the series).

But the political winds have shifted in his absence, the government has lost control of the economy to thieves and gangsters, and the ruble has become a joke along with Communist Party slogans. People line up to buy everything from beets to black market trinkets. They buy anything they can afford, just to be able to buy something. They pay three rubles for a dead light bulb, for example: “Why, when a new bulb was forty kopecks? Since there were no new light bulbs for sale in the stores, you took this used bulb to your office, replaced the bulb in the lamp on your desk and took the good bulb home so that you wouldn’t live in the dark.”

Arkady sums things up with a line the poet Mayakovsky wrote in happier times: “ ‘Regard me, world, and envy: I have a Soviet passport!’ Now everyone just wanted a passport to get out, and the government, ignored by all, had collapsed into the sort of spiteful arguments that erupted in a whorehouse where no customers had come to call in twenty years.”

He feels at times that while he was in Siberia, “God...lifted Moscow and turned it upside down. It was a nether-Moscow he had returned to, no longer under the gray hand of the Party.”

Things heat up for Arkady moments after he visits an informant, a popular underworld banker, at a Moscow construction site where a major black market is doing business. The informant’s car blows up burning its occupant to death and incinerating all of his cash and papers. Arkady’s investigation soon gets him snarled once again with authorities, but with pit bull tenacity he persuades his boss to send him to Germany following a clue he stumbled upon in the victim’s apartment.


The clue is a fax from Munich asking simply, “Where is Red Square?” The question initially seemed silly, as everyone knows where Moscow’s Red Square is located. But Arkady learns the reference is to the famous Malevich painting, “Red Square,” worth millions and believed to have been smuggled out of Russia. He’s soon in trouble not only with his boss, the Soviet consul, and German police, but becomes a target of Chechen gangsters, who, we are told, are “the Sicilians of the Soviet mafias.”

Even his love life gets tortured in the scrambled ideologies of the time. Irina, the woman he rescued in Moscow and helped escape to New York, and then protected under torture in Siberia—altho he’d lost touch with her and had no idea where she was—is now an announcer for the Munich-based Radio Liberty, a U.S. owned propaganda station staffed by Russian émigrés and defectors. Arkady had religiously followed her daily broadcasts and, of course, looked her up when he arrived in Munich—much to his dismay. In a scene that carries the poignancy of Zhivago and Lara, she cuts him cold:

It was funny; in interrogation he had been naked, hosed down, insulted and hit, yet he had never felt as embarrassed as he did at this table. Besides being badly shaved, his stupid face was probably beet-red, he thought, because the evidence seemed to be that he was crazy. Evidently he had been crazy for years, imagining a connection between himself and this woman, who clearly shared no similar memory at all. How much had he imagined—their time hiding in his apartment, the shootings, New York? At the psychiatric isolator, when the doctors injected sulfazine into his spine, they used to say that he was crazy; now, over beer, it turned out that they had been right. He looked at Irina for any response, but she had the equanimity of a statue.

I want to see you again,” Arkady said in spite of himself.

Irina studied him. “No, what you want is for me to say that I’m sorry if you suffered on my account. Arkady, I am sorry. There, I said it. I don’t think we have anything else to say.” With that she left.

I cannot take issue with Lehmann-Haupt’s impression of the novel’s conclusion, nor can I improve upon it. And as I am running out of gas myself, I’ll just give it to you here:

If the beginning of ‘Red Square’ is too slow, the ending is too busy. It's meant for the rapid shifts of film, not the less visual perspectives of prose. At the end of the novel, the August military coup is inevitably unleashed, and its effect on the story is a little as if ‘Crime and Punishment’ were suddenly to burst into newsreel.”

But this observation of the standoff that ended with Gorbachev’s abdication, if true, is a breath of fresh air from the despair that led to it:

Everywhere was a common look of astonishment, as if they had all ventured individually to drop their lifelong masks and show their faces. Middle-aged teachers, muscular truck drivers, wretched apparatchiks and feckless students wandered with expressions of recognition. As in I know you. And among all these Russians, not a bottle. Not a one.”

Stay tuned for Polar Star next week.

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, July 12, 2018

GORKY PARK – Martin Cruz Smith

Well dammit I don't care that Martin Cruz Smith thought the movie adaptation of his 1981 groundbreaking novel Gorky Park was "dreadful," or that the critics thought it was odd, or that it drew box office yawns. Temporary insanity, the whole lot of 'em. Including Smith! You may curl your lip at my cinematic taste but I’ll just grin, because I liked the movie! A LOT! BOTH TIMES!! [pausing here for a calming moment, in lieu of having a stroke] But it's the book I'm reporting on now. The book, which I also liked but which baffled me now and again with its intricacies and narrative syncopation, both times (go ahead and smirk if you must—I wasn't the only one, although most of the literary crowd hyperventilated with joy over it).
Both times I read the book after seeing the movie. First when it came out, in ‘83. I don't remember hearing any snoring. I was so raptly fixed on the screen I don't recall if there was anyone else besides me and my friend in the theater. I remember having to pee but not daring to run up the aisle to the men's room for fear something important would happen before I could run back to my seat. I executed, successfully, what we called in football practice "water discipline." When the movie ended, I stopped to pee, staggered out to the car and we drove to the nearest bookstore.

Reading the novel, I was thunderstruck by how accurately the leading characters matched their movie depictions. I knew with absolute intuitive certainty that Martin Cruz Smith when he wrote the book—altho I've not a scintilla of doubt he'd deny it--had William Hurt in mind for the role of Moscow Militia Chief Investigator Arkady Renko; Brian Dennehey as Kirwill, the New York cop whose brother was one of three murder victims found frozen next to a skating rink in Gorky Park; gorgeous Joanna Pacula as gorgeous Irina Asanova (Renko's love interest, among other involvements), and Lee Marvin as the slick, wealthy, worldly American who trades in exotic furs, among other activities.
Watching the DVD last week I saw I'd forgotten much of the plot, but then re-reading the book I again marveled at the perfect choice of actors for the leading roles. They came alive in the reading as smart-angsty-dogged Hurt, big-tough-no-guff Dennehy, beautiful-stubborn-sassy Pacula, and smooth-silvery-teflon Marvin. One might think that with such strong characters so perfectly cast in a setting as exotically mysterious as Cold War Soviet Russia the transition from page to celluloid would be a snap. But while it worked convincingly for me, possibly because I am easily mesmerized by well-executed passive entertainment, I can see how the sophisticate, who’d already read the book, might have expected a more comprehensive inclusion of the many facets in a novel that excited critics to gush of Smith as the new le Carré: “The most dazzling breakthrough in the suspense field since The Spy Who Came In from the Cold,” said the San Francisco Chronicle’s reviewer, picking one at random.

And therein lies the problem, at least for me, with the sort of butterfly literary narrative that floats about, alighting hither and thither in a flattering tease of an indulgent readership that would rather risk getting lost now and then in a garden of thoughts and details than to admit preferring novels with clearer signage along their story threads. In a way, the former style, be it post modern, post post modern or some new style with a name I’ve not yet stumbled upon, brings to mind the old tale of the emperor who rides nude in his carriage thru the land believing what he’s told by his tailors that he’s clad in exotic new clothing. His subjects, of course believe as well what they’re told—except for the innocent child who shouts out the truth. The “child” in this instance is Peter Andrews in his albeit highly flattering review in The New York Times, gently admitting in the final paragraph that Gorky Park “suffers from a flaw...that is common among even the best examples of the genre. There is a falling-off at the end, when the plot turns about three notches more than my credulity is prepared to be stretched. But the first 340 pages were splendid.” My bratty critique of Mr. Andrews’s faint damning is that if the foregoing is so splendid how could the ending pose any trouble at all clarifying the whole? A reasonable answer: maybe the plot wasn’t handled quite so splendidly if a difficult ending was needed to wrap things up à la Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Yet, it doesn’t especially matter with either novel, in the long view.
I’ve come to expect the cognitive briar-patch ending with ambitious hybrid novels that mingle genre and literary. When it works, it’s the best of both forms. Story with thick glasses. Thing is, for me this approach is barely an irritant even when it doesn’t quite work, mostly falling off the page as superfluous style, so long as the voice and characters are engaging and the narrative thread remains fairly visible, and the atmosphere has the feel of real. I found all of these requisites present in Gorky Park.
Plot, of course, can be the deal-breaking bugaboo for literary avant guardists. Too much stink of story alarms their nostrils and sends them rushing to trusted critics for dispensation. I suspect it was the contemporary Russian setting that turned the trick for Gorky Park—the better to acquit Martin Cruz Smith for muddling the middle enough to pass muster with the gatekeepers of highbrow taste. That the book became a bestseller must have given our literary high priests serious pause, and it testifies to their courage for admitting in print they liked the novel despite its popularity.
Part of the plot muddle is the Byzantine political intrigue of the Soviet Union near the height of the Cold War, which extended not just to East/West high jinks but to the internal struggle between the KGB and the militia. This dynamic is most fascinating as Arkady Renko struggles to solve the triple murder. His initial focus is on finding an excuse to shuck jurisdiction by proving the murders were connected to activities of interest only to the KGB.

Renko works for the MVD, or Ministry of Internal Affairs, which is strictly limited to interior criminal matters, whereas the KGB theoretically is strictly limited to matters of national security. The two organizations occasionally work at cross purposes and squabble over jurisdiction.
He has a personal history with Major Pribluda, the local KGB chief, which adds a dangerous dimension to the rivalry. Renko’s sly moves to shove the case into Pribluda’s lap include requesting KGB tapes of foreign visitors to Moscow. He’s hopeful when recognizing a voice on one of the tapes of an international businessman known to be a KGB friend. If a link could be found between the murders and this individual, Renko tells himself, “he was sure Major Pribluda would step in.”
And this: “Was it possible–did he have the imagination–to create some elaborate case full of mysterious foreigners, black marketeers and informers, a whole population of fictitious vapors rising off three corpses? All of it a game of the investigator against himself?” One such “mysterious foreigner,” an American religious extremist, he learns, was likely one of the victims.
In such a tangle of duty, history, and politics—international and internal--it’s perhaps inevitable that Renko, despite being the son of a Red Army heroic general and the best militia investigator in Moscow, should find himself at some point under state arrest and in Pribluda’s custody.
Ain’t no way I’m going to try to describe the plot complications here. Wouldn’t be prudent. In fact, ‘twould be supremely redundant trying to reinvent the perfectly good wheel Peter Andrews gave us in his fine, brave 1981 review, especially considering the treacherous ground of opportunities to inadvertently commit a devastating spoiler. But I can say this: Arkady Renko lives to fight another day, and another after that, and another… He’s become a series character, and has gotten rave reviews at each outing.
I’m now reading Red Square, which I am liking thus far, A LOT, and expect to report on next Friday.

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]