DOUBLE TROUBLE – December 2010

Three Stations, by Martin Cruz Smith

Reviewed by Rima Walker

When the cold war ended, devotees of John le Carre’s great spy novels concerning that period wondered what kind of writing he would turn to next. He didn’t disappoint, and in his gorgeous British prose gave us novel after novel with such disparate subjects as the traffic in phony medicines and use of untested drugs in third world countries (The Constant Gardener), the greed for wealth that fuels the drug cartels and illegal arms smuggling (The Night Manager), the leftover lives of those involved in espionage during the cold war and what happens to them in the new age of Russia (Our Game).

Our Kind of Traitor deals with this new Russia, or at least an aspect of it, the part that nourishes the Russian Mafia. Perry Makepiece (Makepeace?), an English ex-Oxford don and terrific tennis player, and his girlfriend Gail Perkins, a brilliant lawyer, go to Antigua on a holiday, innocents abroad. There they meet and Perry plays tennis with Dimitri Vladimirovich Krasnov called Dimi, a great Russian bear of a man, loud, boisterous, family loving, vodka drinking, speaker of colloquial English with a Russian twist, terrific tennis player (sound familiar?) and also, by the way, the world’s greatest international money launderer in the pay of said Mafia that has ties to politicians and financial whiz kids all over the globe. But particularly in England, Italy, and Switzerland. Such Picture4coincidences. But without these coincidences, there would be no story, for the two tennis players join together in another more dangerous and sinister game. Dimi wants to defect, being the keeper of great secrets and information the English would love to have, and he chooses Perry as his passage to England with his family, since he knows too much and is on the hit list of his powers that be. Perry joins in the scheme and brings Dimi’s terms to the English MI6, where Hector and Luke become his handlers. And from there on, life gets stickier and more tense for all involved, building to a denouement that prevents you from getting any sleep until the very last page.

Of the five main characters, Perry and Gail sort of fall by the wayside in my opinion, up against the very likable but criminal Dimi with his dangerous and complicated life; Hector, fallen away from the MI6 crowd only to be reinstated; and Luke who, to me, is the most troubled, interesting and complex character in what le Carre is all about. He writes in every one of his books about good and evil, immorality, and corruption, and their effects on the human condition. He considers that in the words of a philosopher quoted by one of the handlers: “Evil is evil, period.” That it is an “absolutely and entirely separate human force.” None of his characters are black or white. Almost all of them are not what they seem. Depravity is rampant, not just in the individual, but in the organizations and governments of the world that purport to help and protect us. And right up until the very last pages of the book, you do not know how it will all turn out for any of them. And then you do find out. And it will shock you. Or, if you are cynical or realistic as the case may be, perhaps it won’t.Picture3

In Three Stations , on the other hand, Arkady Renko, Martin Cruz Smith’s sad, disillusioned and ill-used detective, keeps on going in Russian Mafia-ruled Moscow, slowly but inexorably like a wind-up doll, to bring justice to a killer of women. There is also Zhenya, Arkady’s “adopted” son who tries to help Maya, a 15-year-old runaway from prostitution whose baby has been kidnapped. The novel alternates Arkady’s pursuit with that of Zhenya’s. All of this takes place at Three Stations where three train lines come together, a place riddled with Mafia-based crime, homeless men, women and children, and street gangs.

If you have followed Arkady’s life and career through the several books about him, you can only sympathize with him for his miserable love life (his lover has left him) and admire him for his steadfastness in unraveling the sordid details of the crimes he hopes to solve—with no help from his apparatchik boss—but with help from his vodka-soaked partner, Victor, and inadvertently from his “adopted” teen-aged son, Zhenya. As in Traitor, we learn more about corruption in high places and the stronghold of the Russian Mafia. This is a Renko book not to be missed, the best since Gorky Park exploded on the scene many years ago. Arkady reminds me of Henning Mankell’s Swedish detective Wallander. Perhaps the harsh winter climates of both countries have a similar effect on them.  ~