Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith. Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Post-Communist Russia is a land of cowboy capitalism, dominated by billionaire oligarchs and organized crime, and one of the richest of the rich is Pasha Ivanov, president of the NoviRus Corporation. Ivanov has it all. He’s a brilliant physicist from the bad old days of the USSR. He has every toy a man could want, including a twenty year old girlfriend so intensely beautiful she could “summon the attention of a breeze.” Why then, did he decide to jump to his death from his tenth story ultra modern, and ultra expensive, luxury apartment? And why was he clutching a salt shaker when he did it?
The Moscow authorities are content to call it a suicide. But Senior Investigator Arkady Renko is not so sure. After all, why are there bloody handprints on the window sill? And what in the world would anybody, even a super rich physicist like Ivanov, be doing with fifty kilos of salt in his closet?
Renko decides to investigate, much to the consternation of his boss, Prosecutor Zurin, and when the Senior Vice President of NoviRus is found with his throat slit in the wild wastelands around Chernobyl, Renko’s boss is all too happy to send him packing to the Zone of Exclusion, the radiactive desert surrounding the Chernobyl catastrophe. What Renko finds there is a mix of scientists, scavengers, and thugs, and he’s forced to fight for his life among the predators of the Zone, both human and animal.
Wolves Eat Dogs is the fifth outing for Arkady Renko. We first met him in the 1981 bestselling thriller Gorky Park, where his stubborn independence and dogged inquisitiveness barely saw him through the Communist Regime. Through him, we’ve seen Russia change dramatically. We saw the fall of Communism in Polar Star, and the emergence of the out of control capitalism that made such men as Pasha Ivanov in Red Square, and we followed him to Cuba in Havana Bay. Each of these books has, in its own way, secured the Arkady Renko series’ place on the short list (with Peter Robinson’s Inspector Alan Banks series and James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series) of the best in the business.
Like James Lee Burke, Smith uses the landscape as a powerful mirror of his character’s emotions. The Zone of Exclusion, which technically is the thirty kilometer circle that surrounds Chernobyl, is in effect a wasteland. It is a land of powerful untamed beauty, but one that is polluted by an invisible killer. The April 26th, 1986 disaster, in which reactor number four in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant went critical, has touched everything, polluting the food, the water, and the people. Everything burns with radiation. Its effect on the people there is both physical and psychological. Smith mentions the “Chernobyl Necklace,” for example, the all too common ear to ear scar worn by survivors of thyroid cancer surgery. Thyroid cancer, we learn, is two thousand times more common here in the Zone of Exclusion than it is in the rest of the world. And mortal dangers like this pervade the pessimism of the characters Renko meets. For example, “The mention of lung cancer prompted Katamay to find a cigarette.” Pessimism laced with black humor.
Your constant companion in Wolves Eat Dogs is a dosimeter, a radiation detector, and Smith uses it to create some truly wonderful moments of shear terror. Consider this scene, when Renko first discovers the dosimeter in Pasha Ivanov’s shirt drawer:
“Arkady opened the drawer again and, in the back, beneath the shirts, found a bloody handkerchief wrapped around a radiation dosimeter the size of a calculator. Salt was embedded in the seam of its red plastic shell. Arkady held the dosimeter by the corners to avoid latent fingerprints, turned it on and watched the numbers of the digital display fly to 10,000 counts per minute. Arkady remembered from army drills that an average reading of background radioactivity was around 100. The closer he held the meter to the salt, the higher the reading. At 50,000 cpm the display froze.
“Arkady backed out of the closet. His skin was prickly, his mouth was dry. He remembered Ivanov hugging the attache case in the elevator, and his backward glance to the elevator camera. Arkady understood that hesitation now. Pasha was bracing himself at the threshold. Arkady turned the meter off and on, off and on, until it reset. He made a circuit of Pasha’s beautiful white apartment. The numbers dramatically shuffled and reshuffled with every step as he picked his way like a blind man with a cane around flames he sensed only through the meter. The bedroom burned, the office burned, the living room burned, and at the open window, curtains dragged by the night wind desperately whipped and snapped to point the fastest way out of an invisible fire.”
That’s just a taste of what Smith can do with a scene. I haven’t said anything yet about pacing, or plot, or the wild wild west style chases on motorcycles through the Chernobyl wilderness, but they’re in there. Wolves Eat Dogs is a first rate book from a master of suspense. It will not disappoint.