Wednesday, November 13, 2019


My fears after reading Arkady Renko’s previous adventure have proven unfounded. I’d predicted that Tatiana, #8 in the Russian crime series featuring the intrepid “investigator of special cases,” would mark Renko’s valediction. Soon after I wrote those words I learned his creator, Martin Cruz Smith, was working on yet another episode, giving me a sliver of hope my forecast had been wrong. Had I Renko’s fortitude, stamina, and seemingly unlimited regenerative powers, I might have held my breath. But I knew he carried a bullet in his brain that could kill him instantly without warning, and considering the beatings, stabbings, being locked in a freezer and the exposure to lethal radiation he’d survived since we first met him in Gorky Park, the law of probability had to have his number in sight. At some point I would have no choice but bid him goodbye.

Well, it’s not this time. Not in #9, The Siberian Dilemma. That’s not to say he doesn’t have another close call. This time it’s being mauled by a bear on a Siberian tundra.

“‘Play dead or be dead,’ he recalls his father telling him as a youngster. ‘Lie flat on your stomach to protect your vital organs. Lace your hands over the back of your neck to cover the arteries there.’ It was a long time since Arkady had felt any reason to be thankful to his father. He rolled onto his stomach and covered his neck as instructed. The bear turned Arkady over. It mauled him and shook him like a rag doll. Play dead or be dead. Pain dug deep within him as if he was being torn from the inside out. Yellow teeth took his parka and flesh down to the bone of his arm, and he felt his right hand go numb and limp. The bear redoubled his attack, picking Arkady up, swinging him left and right, and dropping him. He tore the skin off part of Arkady’s forehead. Arkady heard the huffing and snuffling and smelled the rot of his breath. The bear wouldn’t quit. Arkady played dead. There was nothing else he could do. Eventually the beast would give up and leave him alone...”

It would be reasonable at this point to wonder how it is that a Moscow police investigator finds himself on a Siberian tundra being mauled within inches of his life by a very hungry brown bear. The answer, of course, is another of the complicated plots enmeshing the aging Renko, who remains at odds with his boss and who can never seem to resist tugging the capes of very powerful gangsters despite the virtual immunity they’ve attained from their friendship with Russia’s head gangster. In The Siberian Dilemma this would be Vladimir Putin, with the title “president,” and private properties including “ocean-cruising yachts...four estates with swimming pools, horse stables, tennis courts, and cascading waterfalls...and one with a separate house for ducks.

“In this manner, corruption was quantified and understood.” And sounds rather familiar to some of us, as well.

Renko’s mission to Irkutsk, known as the Paris of Siberia, is twofold. One is official and the other private. Zurin, the Moscow prosecutor who shares a mutual dislike with Renko, has ordered him to interrogate a prisoner who’s being held in a prison there charged with trying to kill Zurin himself. Renko’s private reason is to find his lover, Tatiana Petrovna, the fearless investigative reporter who slipped off to Irkutsk to interview one of the gangster oligarchs who has announced his intention to seek Putin’s job in the next national election.

“Anyone who challenges the Kremlin runs the risk of being murdered,” Tatiana’s boss, Sergei Obolensky, publisher of the news magazine Russia Now, tells Renko. If Tatiana’s with the oligarch then she, too, is a target, Renko know. He’s worried because she did not returned to Moscow when expected, and Renko has no way to communicate with her.

The ensemble cast includes Victor Orlof, Renko’s alcoholic detective/sidekick, who’s in the drunk tank when Renko leaves for Siberia. “They were partners in a peculiar business and he had come to count on Victor for what he felt was half his intelligence and most of his wit. Suddenly he had no one to take Victor’s place.” But a new sidekick kicks in by coincidence on the flight to Irkutsk. Rinchin Bolot, a friendly Irkutskian who introduces himself as a “factotum,” or man of many talents for hire. Renko hires him, making me a little nervous because for all we know Bolot is really working for someone else—Zurin the prosecutor or one of the two oligarchs who own most of Siberia. One of them is the man seeking to unseat Putin.

Also back in Moscow is Zhenya Zurin, the orphan chess-wiz Renko had befriended as a child and then mentored him as he might an adopted son. A threat of Zhenya’s “disappearing” is used to pressure Renko once he’s in Irkutsk and is given an extra-curricular “assignment.”

As to his own safety, Renko uses a line we’ve heard from him before, this time when Victor’s sister tells him how impressed she is that he stood his ground when an angry bear charged at him in the zoo she directs. Someone had released the bear and its mate, and Renko disabled it with a gun that fired narcotic cartridges. It was, she says, “As if you didn’t care.”

His response, which relates to the bullet lodged in his brain, “That’s my secret weapon.”

Recovering from his mauling in Siberia, the prospect of death occupies his mind with more perspective. “Arkady had never wondered or worried too much about his legacy, such as it was.” we are told. “He had never felt the need to leave his mark on the world, either through achievement or progeny.

There were those who’d be sorry to see him gone and those who’d be delighted. Given the identity of those in both camps, the latter was, in its own way, as much a compliment as the former.”

The book’s title appears as a riddle regarding a person’s choices when either of two options will almost surely be fatal. In explaining it, Renko uses the analogy of a man who falls through the ice on a lake. “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…

The lesson is it’s better to take action than be passive...better to fight than to surrender, even if you know you’re going to die.”

As usual in the Renko series I found the setting to be ferociously realistic. This authenticity, I learned at the end of The Siberian Dilemma, did not come from reading travel guides. In his acknowledgments the author tells us how he prepared for this Renko adventure.

He thanks Luisa Smith, “my invaluable travel companion with a magic camera...Don Sanders for his help in making the Siberian trip happen...Arkady Persov from Irkutsk generously entertained us while showing us his city and the natural wonders of Lake Baikal...Lyuba Vinogradova has been my brilliant translator and research assistant for more than twenty years. She traveled from Mozambique to Siberia to be part of the team. Finally, there is Andrew Nurnberg, my loyal friend and agent for almost forty years. He has traveled with me on research trips to Siberia, Moscow, Tver, Berlin, and Havana and always kept his sense of humor. These friends buoy me up and keep me on my feet.

And let me add my gratitude, as well.

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

Thursday, November 7, 2019

EASY ERRORS – Steven F. Havill

Were I to consider becoming a police officer I doubt I could find better and more interesting training literature than Steven Havill's Posada County mystery series. I'm confident saying this after reading only one of the nearly two dozen in the series because Easy Errors just might be the only manual a would-be cop—or any cop--would need.
Its narrative architecture is pure meticulous procedural, from the precision of coded radio chatter to a ruptured bag of Cheetos found at the scene of a fatal road accident to the gathering and testing of evidence and preserving its chain of custody, and ultimately to the strategy of presenting witnesses to a grand jury.
The birth of this case is audio witnessed by Posada County (New Mexico) Undersheriff Bill Gastner, an upper-middle-aged widower who’s home alone and has just settled in to read page 107 in Peterson’s History of the Single-Shot Cartridge Rifle in the United States Military. The time is 9:17 p.m on a Wednesday in early June.
“What drew my attention to the clock this evening was the distant shriek of tires tearing rubber and the loud, dull whump that followed. Two lesser contacts and a final ground shaker followed. Whump, then bang, blang, BAM. Just like that, with a pulse or two between each concussion. The clock jerked to 9:18.”
Well, that sure as hell drew my attention, too, but not to the clock, and at least I could sit and follow the action from my recliner while poor old, overweight, out-of-shape Bill Gastner struggles out of the deep, cozy pocket of his “leather reading chair,” telephones dispatch and coordinates a response by the scant available deputies, then tootles off in car 310, his decrepit county-issued Crown Vic, to where he correctly presumes the wump, bang, blang and BAM had occurred. And there the plot quickly deepens into tragedy and thickens in implications. Three dead teens--one thrown from the SUV and crushed when it rolled onto him and the other two trapped in the wreckage but clearly lifeless as well. Gastner immediately recognizes the SUV as owned by the county’s assistant district attorney, and soon determines it was being driven by the ADA’s only son. The other two victims are siblings of the county’s new rookie deputy who’s been out riding with a patrol deputy and arrives at the scene determined to do his duty over his boss’s objections and despite the horrific personal loss he encounters.
At this point I’ve swallowed the hook and am in the creel, even as I begin to lose patience with the tedious use of ten-code radio signals and the excruciatingly painstaking collection and commenting on the minutia of debris, such as the “ruptured Cheetos bag,” any or all of which could prove significant in learning what might have caused the crash to happen. Having covered police departments and courts for decades, I understand how this staggering number of seemingly incidental fragments can make or break a criminal or liability case in a trial, and put juries, news reporters, and judges to sleep as lawyers wrangle for hours over the evidentiary relevance of a clothing fiber or single hair, and at times I found myself skimming over pages of these descriptions. But it was also part of what kept me scrolling through the novel on my laptop’s Kindle app. I knew I was in the hands of a professional, a cop who knew what was important and, through Gastner, was closely monitoring and advising his rookie in the fundamentals of solid police work.
I waited until finishing the novel before looking up author Steven Havill to see where he had gotten his police and court experience, as he also presents his courtroom scenes as realistically as any I have read by real lawyers and judges. Here is what I found in Havill’s brief Wiki bio:
Havill lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his wife Kathleen, a writer and artist. A dedicated high school teacher of biology and English by day.” 
Steven Havill

I stared at that for a bit, thinking huh? A high school teacher? There must be more! And maybe there is, but to find it I shall check a little deeper into this mystery police expert’s background. If anything new turns up I’ll include it in my review of Havill’s next Posada County novel, which most likely will not be the series debut, Heartshot. It was blogging buddy Tracy K of Bitter Tea and Mystery, whose review of Heartshot sold me on the series. When I finished Easy Errors and went back to Tracy’s review I nearly leaped out of my recliner when I read how this first of the series opens:
...a car full of teens, running from a stop by Deputy Torrez, goes airborne into a rocky outcrop, killing all five kids and revealing a package of cocaine under the seat,” Tracy quotes from the book’s blurb. “Has someone brought big-time crime to the county? [Gastner] is now dealing with grieving parents–one of whom starts packing a gun...”
Okay, some of you might have allowed a little gasp reading this, seeing the similarity between the openings—teens killed in car crash. I gasped, too, with the added oomph of seeing that Deputy Torrez had been chasing the car that crashed. Torrez is the rookie in Easy Errors who discovers his brother and sister dead in that crash, and spends the rest of the novel learning the ropes from Gastner on the importance of strictly adhering to procedure in gathering evidence and following where it might lead. Thus the title Easy Errors, which points to the dangers of straying from procedure. I already knew how Torrez came to be a rookie in Easy Errors, when some twenty-three books prior he is already a patrol deputy. Here’s how Havill explains it in his foreword to Easy Errors:
The Posadas Mysteries have been around for more than twenty-five years, and at one point several years ago, after many titles in the series, a reader asked if I would write the story covering the day that Estelle Reyes-Guzman joined the Posadas County Sheriff’s Department. That’s how the prequel One Perfect Shot came to be. Chronologically, that prequel’s action happens two or three years before the adventures in Heartshot.… the book that started the series back in 1991. ‘How about [Torrez’s] history?’ was the next question. Well, why not? Prequels are fun to write, so how about a pre-prequel? Easy Errors is the result of that exercise.”
Tracy K didn’t mention finding the narrative bogged down by plodding procedure, as I did with Easy Errors, so maybe that was partly—or mainly--because of the plot’s instructional aspect. I haven’t said much of the characterizations, but they were so well depicted, so lifelike and natural, they bring a feeling of authenticity to the book. They’re a little dull, too, just like real people.
“‘I appreciate your initiative, Robert,’ Gastner tells the rookie, gently admonishing him for exhibiting something of a lone-wolf attitude. ‘Don’t get me wrong on that score. But as you’re aware, this is a quasi-military outfit…uniforms, chain of command, all those sorts of things. When you’re taking a department vehicle, dispatch needs to know where you’re going. Don’t just surprise us. If we need you, or the vehicle, we need to know how to contact you.’”
I’m pretty sure at this point Deputy Torrez, a man of few words, answered the undersheriff, “Ten-four, Sir.”

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