“Vigilance Keeps Us Free” is the motto gracing several framed certificates on the wall of Col. Leonid N. Malenkov’s office at Moscow’s Kazansky Station. One cannot help but sense the irony when Senior Investigator Arkady Renko, there to discuss the presumed murder of a young woman in the city’s main rail hub, observes the words and wryly suggests, “Good, you can cooperate with me.” In Renko’s Putin-era Moscow, his plea has the resounding effect of a whisper in a hurricane.
Martin Cruz Smith’s latest and arguably best novel, Three Stations, is a roller-coaster ride through the dark underbelly of present-day Russia, with a varied and cynical cast of billionaires, bureaucrats, street urchins, and thugs for whom day-to-day survival is the common objective. Smith’s longtime protagonist, Renko, has for the past 30 years navigated the byzantine byways of the Soviet Union, Cuba, and now oligarchic Russia. The landscapes may change, but Renko is the one constant – an Everyman who, in stubborn contrast to the society in which he lives, retains a sense of morality and duty in his everyday investigations into the deaths of victims those around him would just as soon forget.
After all, as Colonel Malenkov observed, “Life is unfair; why should death be any different?”
Moscow’s Three Stations neighborhood is not only the intersection of three railway terminals – Leningrad, Yaroslavl, and Kazansky (a daytime “Circus Maximus with cars”) – but also the nighttime nexus of darker, more malevolent forces: “pickpockets, flyboys handing out directions to strip clubs and slot arcades, gangs of street kids looking for the wounded, the slow, the easy mark.” Here, Renko interviews local residents with a view of the square where the young murder victim was found. Among the interviewees is Army Gen. Kassel, whose answers Renko finds incredulous. Yet, he thinks to himself, “But if Kassel was hiding something, who wasn’t? Because, as his partner Victor Orlov said, ‘That’s the problem with interrogations, so many lies, so little time.’ ”
Later, in the course of gathering evidence, Renko turns up inexplicable clues – notably an invitation to Russia’s premier charity ball, the Nijinsky Fair. In this netherworld of largess, he rubs elbows and clinks crystal both with members of Russia’s business and social elite, and, improbably, the woman living in the apartment neighboring his own, Anya, a journalist who is covering the event. Renko, pursuing leads like a Russian Columbo, coaxes his wreck of an automobile – the Lada he’s appropriated from his hapless partner, Victor – through car chases and stakeouts. In this and other ways, Smith has very effectively crafted a textual “film noir” of rain-slicked streets. This only enhances the pall of desperation that envelops the city’s abandoned buildings, street vendors, and hustlers like an ashen, suffocating smog. Against this backdrop, Renko stands out as a black-and-white profile in a gray world.
Renko eventually learns that the Nijinsky Fair is not a charity at all but rather, as Anya describes, “a social club for super-rich, middle-aged boys. They only come to table-hop. Their women are supposed to be beautiful, laugh at the men’s crude remarks [and] endure the clumsy attempts at seduction by their husband’s best friends.” It’s in this rarified environment that Renko senses a breakthrough, against the entreaties of Anya’s dinner companion, billionaire Sasha Vaksberg, who fears bad publicity and financial ruin from any revelations involving the club. Under Putin, Vaksberg has had his passport confiscated, and feels trapped, like a caged animal with no escape.
Interwoven with Renko’s investigation, a 15-year-old chess prodigy and Renko protégé, Zhenya, is seeking to help a young woman named Maya find her kidnapped baby. Zhenya, who lives in an abandoned casino in Three Stations, understands that Maya and her child are being stalked by hired killers from the brothel she worked for, and tenderly offers her as much assistance and protection as circumstances will allow. Subsequently, through a character named “Auntie Lena,” the last person Maya sees before her baby disappears, we are introduced to the underground baby trade.
In contrast to the Soviet metropolis in Smith’s previous novels “Gorky Park” and “Red Square,” the Moscow of “Three Stations” evokes for Renko a city that “wasn’t Arkady’s Moscow anymore.... [T]he streets glittered not with diamonds, but with broken glass.... [T]hat population was gone.... Bought out, sold out, ‘developed’ out.” And after a dustup with the resentful supervisor who suspended him, Victor tells Renko, “You can’t go on pretending you’re an investigator.... You have no authority and no protection, just enemies. What are you looking for? Blood on the sidewalk and a round of applause?”
But against this dour reality, Renko, with a saturnine stoicism, wades through endless pools of indifference, cynicism, and corruption. Intact are the dark humor, intelligence, and power of observation that have made him the compelling literary figure he’s been for decades.