Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review of Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith (1989, Random House)

After fleeing Moscow former state investigator Arkady Renko has worked his way east, hiding in the shadows, always moving on before his former colleagues track him down.  It is now the time of Perestroika and Renko is working the slime line of a large factory ship, gutting fish before they are frozen.  In the spirit of cooperation the boat is working with American trawlers, storing their catches.  When one of the trawlers deposits the body of a female crew member onto the deck of the Polar Star the captain asks Renko to investigate her death.  To the consternation of some of the crew Renko suspects foul play.  At first he is reluctant to investigate further, but like many of the men who encountered the woman before her death he feels drawn to her.  It soon becomes clear, however, that investigating her death might have deadly consequences.

Polar Star is the sequel to Gorky Park, the first book in the Arkady Renko series.  Set a number of years after the first book, Renko has fled his former life and colleagues, taking a succession of menial jobs, working his way east across Siberia.  He eventually finds himself working on a factory ship in the Bering Sea, processing fish caught by American trawlers.  When a young woman is dragged from the sea by a net, Renko is persuaded to turn investigator once again.  Given the closed setting, the woman could have only been killed by one of the Russian crew or the crews of the American trawlers; she was last seen on the stern of the factory boat after a party on-board which the Americans attended.  It’s a neat set-up, made more compelling by the number of potential suspects given the woman’s promiscuity, the secrets held by many of the crew, their reluctance to aid Renko, especially since his investigation seems likely to cancel shore leave after four months of sea, and the inherent suspicion between Russians and Americans.  Smith gives a real sense of life on-board a factory ship operating in freezing territory and the uneasy thawing of relations been cold war rivals.  He slowly winds up the intrigue and tension, with the plot unfolding towards a nice denouement. The only flat note is the sense that Renko should have been dead within the first third of the tale and somehow manages to stay alive despite the many opportunities to kill and dispose of him.  Indeed, that he’s alive at the end of the book is something of a miracle.   Nonetheless, Polar Star is a gripping crime thriller.

No comments: