Soviet Spotlight: Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith

The day at the public library I picked up Martin Cruz Smith’s Wolves Eat Dogs I also grabbed his 1989 thriller Polar Star. Published decades ago, I can still remember when  it was released to much fanfare and touted as a sequel to Cruz Smith’s mammoth best seller Gorky Park.

Instead of set in Moscow and environs like its predecessor, Polar Star takes place in the Bearing Sea mostly aboard a giant factory ship. As part of an inaugural joint venture between the USSR and the United States a small fleet of American-owned fishing boats pass their fish-laden nets up to the Polar Star to be processed, frozen, stored and later sold with the two parties sharing the profits. With the USSR deep into glasnost and perestroika expectations are running high both teams can work together for the greater good.

Deep inside the bowels of the huge factory ship is former Moscow Militia Inspector Arkady Renko, knee deep in fish guts slaving away on the production line. When one of the Soviet crew is found dead, Renko is quietly pressed into service to determine how she died, and to do so as quickly and discreetly as possible lest her untimely demise derail the fragile commercial alliance. His task is daunting one, made even more difficult by those who would rather call it a suicide and cover things up. Before long he learns just about everyone onboard the small flotilla is shady, secretive and potentially criminal. Think of it as Murder on the Orient Express meets The Deadliest Catch.

Polar Star, while an older thriller still packs a punch. (Although thanks to its age it now reads like historical fiction.) I enjoyed it even more than Cruz Smith’s more recent Wolves Eat Dogs. After enjoying Polar Star I now wanna read the entire Arkady Renko series.

The Last by Hanna Jameson

Last month, as much of the world began hunkering down in hopes of slowing the spread of the dreaded COVID19 virus, Eva, of the book blog Novel Deelights responded with a piece entitled “Nowhere To Run : a list of books set in isolated locations” in which she recommended 10 novels set in secluded locales like cruise ships, remote islands, and even the planet Mars. After reading Eva’s descriptions, The Last by Hanna Jameson caught my eye. Set deep in the backwoods of Switzerland, 20 residents and staff at the L’Hotel Sixieme find themselves isolated and on the own two months after a global nuclear war. If things couldn’t get any worse, the body of a young girl is discovered in one of the hotel’s rooftop water tanks, prompting one of the guests to take it upon himself to uncover her murderer.

Unable to resist a post-apocalyptic whodunnit set in Switzerland I was able to secure a Kindle edition through Overdrive after only a brief wait. I whipped through Jameson’s fast-paced page-turner in no time, enjoying it so much I’ve concluded The Last is the best novel I’ve read this year.

The Last is told from the perspective of Jon Keller, a Sanford University professor of history. While eating breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant his last morning before flying back to America after attending an academic conference sees his smart phone erupt with news alerts of cities around the world being nuked. Deciding to stay put instead of venturing into town he desperately tries to contact his wife and kids back in San Fransisco but to no avail. Over the next few days news of the greater world dries up, television stations go off the air and local wireless and internet service vanishes. Before long, realizing they’re now on their own, those at the hotel are forced into rationing electricity, natural gas and food. As time goes by and hopelessness mounts, several guests commit suicide. As a personal antidote to this growing sense of purposelessness Jon vows to find the girl’s murderer, who he suspects hasn’t left the hotel.

Several things struck me about this novel. It has a contemporary feel, thanks to pop culture references to The Road, The Handmaid’s Tale and Pulp Fiction and also the arguments over the degree of blame America’s President deserves for triggering the nuclear holocaust. “Everyone knew how stupid and dangerous it was to vote for that kind of man, and those religious zealots!” yelled Jon, a liberal university professor at fellow hotel resident and survivor Tomi, a cynical, strong-willed libertarian. Seeing how a cast of international characters, each with intriguing backstories interact with each other reminded me of Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel Bel Canto. Lastly, seeing Jon, a middle age professor forced into a heroic role by circumstances beyond his control is a recurring theme in Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers series I’ve come to love.

The Last is easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and the more I think about it probably the best so far of 2020. Much thanks to Eva for bringing it to my attention.

About Time I Read It: Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith

Right before our local public libraries closed their doors in an effort to halt the spread of the rampaging Corona Virus I secured a tall stack of books betting I’d probably be hunkered down for a while. Luckily for me, as a health precaution our libraries ordered us to not return any borrowed materials and as a result we get to keep our books until further notice. As the world battles the worst pandemic in a century at least I’ve got plenty to read.

One of the books I grabbed before our libraries suspended operations was Martin Cruz Smith’s 2004 whodunnit Wolves Eat Dogs. Over the last year or so I’ve been supplementing my diet of nonfiction with international thrillers, crime novels and the like and figured now was a good time to dive back into the fiction of Martin Cruz Smith, an author I haven’t read in decades. Set mostly in Ukraine, I could apply it towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, making it hard to resist. I burned through Wolves Eat Dogs in only a few days and I must have enjoyed it because it left me wanting to read more of his stuff.

It looked like a simple suicide. One of Russia’s billionaires, deciding he couldn’t take it anymore and jumped out the window his Moscow luxury high-rise. A lesser Investigator would have closed the book the second he arrived on the scene but not Arkady Renko. Knowing from experience whenever wealthy and powerful Russian men are killed it’s never by their own hands Renko, over the protests of his superiors decides to dig a bit deeper. Before long his investigation takes him to Ukraine, specifically to Chernobyl and the Zone of Exclusion, an irradiated shadowland abandoned since the 1986 nuclear disaster now home to an assortment of squatters, animal poachers, scavengers and corrupt militia men. It’s here Renko suspects there’s some sort of connection between Chernobyl and the dead billionaire. But what is it?

Inspector Renko is one of those great characters you can’t get enough of. Smart as hell and honest, and because he’s been at it so long knows his stuff. After years of fighting crime in the USSR and the near lawless post-Communist regime that took its place, Renko’s left cynical and damaged, but amazingly still in possession of his humanity. He’s tough, level-headed and never reckless. Those occasions when he does need to kick some ass, he does it right.

Like I said above, I enjoyed Wolves Eat Dogs and I’m hoping to read more of Cruz Smith’s fiction in the future. With a little luck this won’t be my last blog post featuring the adventures of Inspector Renko.

About Time I Read It: Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin

It’s not every day I get to read a novel set in Slovakia. Even if roughly half of Michael Genelin’s 2008 crime novel Siren of the Waters takes place in the what used to be the eastern half of the Central European nation of Czechoslovakia it’s still my first literary foray into that part of the world. (Keep in mind of course if its author Michael Genelin is an American, so it can’t be considered Slovakian literature.) Wanting something set in Slovakia for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I borrowed an ebook version through Overdrive and went to work reading it almost immediately. I burned through it quickly and generally enjoyed it. Like any good crime novel, it’s entertaining and filled with a number of plot twists, most of, if not all I never saw coming.

On a highway outside the capital Bratislava, Jana, a veteran commander in the Slovak police force and her partner are called to investigate a deadly automobile accident. Inside the smoldering wreck of a van they find multiple bodies and no survivors. After discovering the deceased passengers were all young women and the driver male (and probably from Ukraine) Jana suspects it’s a case of human trafficking come to a fatal end. Knowing the fire in the van was purposely set she sets off in search of the those criminal elements responsible. Her search takes her to first Ukraine and then France, where she takes part in a international conference on human trafficking. Every clue Jana uncovers along the course of her international journey leads to more questions, as well as additional violence.

Roughly over half of Siren of the Waters is set in Slovakia in the years preceding the fall of Communism.  Arranged chronologically in the form of flashbacks, they follow Jana’s life starting with her career as a young police officer employed by the authoritarian Communist government, her stormy marriage to her actor husband turned political dissident and ending with the collapse of the old Communist regime. I enjoyed this part of the novel and I credit the author for doing the research needed to give those passages their authenticity.

Like I said, it’s not every day I get to read a novel set in Slovakia. Luckily for me it also kept me entertained.

About Time I Read It: Warburg in Rome by James Carroll

Way back in the spring of 2002 a friend invited me to spend the weekend at the beach with a house full of complete strangers. (Make a long story short, they were terrific people and I had a great time.) Late Saturday morning after an evening of late night festivities we were sitting around treating our hangovers and lack of sleep with some light breakfast and coffee when a couple of us began talking about books. After I told him I enjoyed history he recommended a book called Constantine’s Sword. As luck would have it, a month or so later a buddy and I were rummaging through a second hand bookstore and what did I come across but a used copy of James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews. Following that guy’s advice I bought the book and later that weekend eagerly dived into it. After reading just the first dozen pages I quickly realized I was the recipient of excellent advice.

Flash forward to 2020 and I’m wandering the shelves at my rural public library and what do I find but Warburg in Rome, a 2014 novel by James Carroll, the author of Constantine’s Sword. Seeing it’s set in Italy (and therefore applicable towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge) near the end of WWII and the years following it I couldn’t resist. In the end I found Warburg in Rome reasonably entertaining, even though I wouldn’t put it in the same league with other WWII-era historical thrillers by Alan Furst or Philip Kerr. But hey who cares?

In June 1944, just as the Allies are invading Normandy, two American men touch down in recently liberated Rome. One, a secular Jew, is David Warburg from the US War Refugee Board, sent to assist Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis and their Fascist allies. The other, Monsignor Kevin Deane, a Catholic priest from New York City also sent to provide aid and comfort to the afflicted. Despite their religious differences the two become fast friends and end up encountering a host of diverse characters ranging from a beautiful yet shadowy French-Italian Red Cross worker, a Jewish resistance leader, an ambitious young German priest with ties to Hitler’s inner circle and an English nun proficient in cryptography. Later, after Germany’s surrender they discover a secret network deep within the Vatican to help wanted Nazi war criminals flee to Argentina.

Like I mentioned earlier, Warburg in Rome probably isn’t the best historical thriller I’ve read but it kept me entertained so I’m happy I read it. I’m also happy I went to the beach that weekend years ago with a bunch of total strangers. Had I not, I might never of read anything by James Carroll.

The Accomplice by Joseph Kanon

Back in 2017 I reviewed Joseph Kanon’s 2015 historical thriller Leaving Berlin. While it didn’t blow me away, nevertheless I thought it wasn’t a bad piece of historical fiction, leaving me intrigued and wanting to read Kanon’s other novels like Istanbul Passage and Alibi. Feeling hopeful, I concluded “there’s a good chance you’ll see more of Kanon’s novels featured on my blog.” Sadly, three years would pass until I read anything else by Kanon. This time around it would be his most recent offering, The Accomplice published late last year. After stumbling across a copy on the New Books shelf at my public library I decided to take a chance. As luck would have it I discovered a decent page-turner and whipped through The Accomplice in no time.

Set in 1962 not long after the apprehension of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, Aaron Wiley travels to West Germany at the request of his uncle Max, a Holocaust survivor. While the two men chat at an outdoor cafe, Max spots who he swears is Dr. Otto Schramm, a camp doctor who worked with Mengele at Auschwitz and was responsible for sending Max’s family, including his young son to the gas chambers. The stress of seeing the Nazi war criminal gives Max a heart attack and after he’s rushed to the hospital he makes Aaron promise he’ll hunt down Schramm and bring him to justice.

Even though Schramm reportedly died in a car accident in Argentina, Aaron honors his ailing uncle’s request and begins his search. A talented Desk Officer for the CIA, he puts his skills and connections to work, following a trail of clues leading to him to Buenos Aires where a community of German expats now call home. Interesting enough, one of them is Schramm’s daughter, a beautiful but damaged divorcée who Aaron thinks is the key to finding the evil doctor. But is Max’s interest in her more than professional?

The Accomplice is a fast-paced entertaining novel with no shortage of plot twists. Once again, I’m left wanting to read more of Kanon’s fiction. Perhaps this time it won’t take me three years to do so.

About Time I Read It: The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. by Carole DeSanti

An economist once told me President Harry Truman hated asking economists for advice.  Whenever he asked his trusted economic advisors a question invariably they refused to respond with a direct answer, preferring to speak in seemingly contradictory terms to the likes of “on the one hand…on the other.” “Give me a one-handed economist” Truman complained, after being denied simple answers to how best address the nation’s economic woes.

America’s 33rd President probably wouldn’t like what I have to say about Carole DeSanti’s 2012 historical novel The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. because I, just like the Truman’s economists need two hands to say what I want to say. I found this novel challenging and frustrating at times, but not without merit. I’d been in the mood for quite some time to read a little French fiction written in the 19th century, or at the very least a novel set in France during the same period. Honestly, had I looked at its reviews on Amazon and Goodreads before borrowing an ebook through Overdrive I never would have opted to read it. But in the end I did, forcing myself to plod through The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. with mixed feelings.

Written in the style of a first person account, it tells the story of the eponymous heroine Eugenie R. beginning with her life as a farm girl on the brink of womanhood in rural Gascony, near the Pyrenees. Swept off her feet by a young, wealthy Parisian businessman passing through on business, she follows him to the French capital where he later abandons her. After a short stint as a model for an absinth-swilling, poverty-stricken painter, she soon finds herself broke and living on the streets. Alone, impoverished and youthfully naive, she’s soon coerced into prostitution and made to toil in one of the city’s many quasi-legally tolerated brothels. With no assets other than her beauty, wits and a few decent friends, she must find a way to survive in a time when women in her predicament had few, if any decent options.

On one hand, kudos to DeSanti for crafting a novel that reads like something written in the mid-19th century. I got the impression the author is fluent in French, or pretty damn close. Also, I’m guessing DeSanti put a hell of a lot of research  into The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. Again, just like when I read Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests reading this novel transported me to another time and place and for that I’m thankful.

However, on the other hand, in her quest to craft such a novel in the style of that era, DeSanti has filled her with “purple prose.” Her excessive use of flowery language slows everything down. In addition, the author’s habit of repeatedly using untranslated French words and phrases is also a hinderance, leaving me wondering if it would have better to simply use English in many of those cases. (Thankfully, the book comes with a glossary. I also found the Kindle’s translation feature a huge help in deciphering many of these French words and phrases.)

There you have it. Perhaps The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. is one of those books I’m glad I read, even though I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped.

2019 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. In my perennial quest to win the coveted “Jet Setter” award I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, each year I find myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

2018 was a down year for me since I read and reviewed just 15 books. I’m happy to report this year I rebounded nicely with a final tally of 23. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Belgium, Iceland and even the micro-state of Vatican City. This year I even read a book about Moldova.

  1. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich (Russia)
  2. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939–1940 by William R. Trotter (Finland)
  3. Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Changed the World by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe (Iceland)
  4. The Fourth Figure by Pieter Aspe (Belgium)
  5. Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein (Moldova)
  6. A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova (Bulgaria)
  7. The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’ (Hungary)
  8. Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto (The Netherlands)
  9. The Swede by Robert Karjel (Sweden)
  10. Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg (Denmark)
  11. The Prince’s Boy by Paul Bailey (Romania)
  12. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (United Kingdom)
  13. The Abyssinian Proof by Jenny White (Turkey)
  14. 1924: The Year That Made Hitler by Peter Ross Range (Germany)
  15. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss (France)
  16. Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made by Richard Rhodes (Spain)
  17. The Volunteer: One Man’s Mission to Lead an Underground Army Inside Auschwitz and Stop the Holocaust by Jack Fairweather (Poland)
  18. Angels and Demons by Dan Brown (Vatican City)
  19. The Italians by John Hooper (Italy)
  20. The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal (Austria)
  21. A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel by Edmund Levin (Ukraine)
  22. Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr (Czech Republic)
  23. North of Ithaka: A Granddaughter Returns to Greece and Discovers Her Roots by Eleni N. Gage (Greece)

 

As you might guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

About Time I Read It: The Fourth Figure by Pieter Aspe

I’ve read just two novels set in Belgium. There’s Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn, set in both Brussels and Paris in the late 15th century and the other being Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58, also set in Brussels but during the 1958 World’s Fair. My search on Overdrive for something set in Belgium I could apply towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge brought me to Pieter Aspe’s crime novel The Fourth Figure. Having good luck of late with this genre, and seeing it was nominated for the impressive-sounding Hercule Poirot Award, I decided to download a borrowable copy to my Kindle. I took a liking to The Fourth Figure after only a few pages, and like many an entertaining novel found it damn near impossible to put down. And since it’s book four of a series, all staring Bruges police Commissioner Pieter Van In, hopefully in the near future you’ll see the other three novels discussed on my blog.

When a young woman’s body is discovered in a canal outside her apartment Commissioner Van In and his partner Guido first assume it’s a suicide. But after learning she was murdered and had ties to a local satanic cult the two detectives are forced to turn Bruges upside down in search of answers. Just to make things even more complicated, Van In is forced by his superior to let a stunningly attractive journalist tag along, which in turn makes his District Attorney pregnant wife jealous.

The Fourth Figure has all the things you’d want in a European crime novel: picturesque setting, powerful individuals with dark secrets, interagency rivalries and turf wars, plot twists and a world-weary but yet unbroken talented lead investigator. Expertly translated from Flemish, The Fourth Figure reads wonderfully. Like I said at the start, you’ll be seeing more from this series on my blog.

About Time I Read It: The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Back in August I called Peter Høeg’s whodunnit Smilla’s Sense of Snow the grandaddy of Nordic noir/Scandinavian crime because it was published in the early 90s, long before authors like Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø and Henning Mankell achieved international notoriety. Lo and behold I learned just this week there was a Swedish husband and wife duo writing such novels way back in the 60s. While searching on Overdrive for something set in Hungary for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I came across an available copy of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s 1966 mystery novel The Man Who Went Up in Smoke. Intrigued, a downloaded it to my Kindle and gave it a shot. I’ll admit I wasn’t sure how a 50 year old piece of crime fiction would hold up after all these years but fear not, for The Man Who Went Up in Smoke met, if not exceeded my modest expectations. And now I want to read more from this pioneering Swedish duo.

Published in 1966, our story begins when Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck is recalled from a well-deserved family vacation on orders from the Foreign Office. A Swedish journalist has gone missing while on assignment in Budapest and government officials are desperate to find out why as quickly and quietly as possible, fearing he’s either defected or has met some untimely end. (One official fears they might have another Raoul Wallenberg on their hands since he also vanished in Hungary without a trace.) Admitting he doesn’t speak a word of Hungarian (neither does anyone else on the force his superiors point out) he can nevertheless liaise with the local police in German and English, both of which he speaks. Once in Budapest Inspector Beck begins retracing the missing journalist’s steps looking for clues in hopes of solving the mystery of his disappearance.

I was struck while reading The Man Who Went Up in Smoke just how the authors depicted the Hungarian authorities as reasonable and sympathetic characters, even though the country was a Communist dictatorship when the novel was published in 1966. (At one point when Beck visits a Budapest police station he remarks to himself how much it looks like his own back in Stockholm.) For a crime novel written 25 years before the Fall of Communism and set mostly behind the Iron Curtain I found it surprisingly apolitical and wondered if this had anything to do with Sweden’s long history of political neutrality. On the other hand, maybe its the authors’ opinion that no matter our political differences, we all have to deal with a world plagued by criminals.