Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sort Of Related: Renko & Scudder, Together At Last

Three Stations, the latest Arkady Renko novel by Martin Cruz Smith, is named after Moscow’s massive railway complex, where a trio of train lines and occasionally lives come to an end. Detective Renko, sidelined by a disgruntled superior and on the verge of suspension, is saddled with the case of a prostitute who OD’d there. He ruffles feathers by determining that the woman was not a prostitute and her death no accident. At the same time Zhenya, the shy teenaged genius who has become Renko’s charge, assists a young runaway whose baby was kidnapped on a train into the city.

Typically the two storylines would intersect. That they don’t is one of the pleasures of the book. As is Smith’s clear-eyed look at contemporary Russia, from the station’s makeshift clans of urchins to a luxury fair for oligarchs now afraid of losing their dachas in the wake of economic collapse. Renko remains a magnetic protagonist, keeping his expectations low and his sense of irony high. Three Stations is a lesser entry in the series but it’s always a pleasure to spend time in Renko’s company.

Sadly, I missed Smith’s panel appearance at Bouchercon. But a strange synchronicity was at work in San Francisco nonetheless. I have only read two mystery series in their entirety, the Renko books and the Matt Scudder novels by Lawrence Block. ARCs of the newest Scudder were circulating at the convention, and I ended up with one. (Thanks again, Megan!)

A Drop of the Hard Stuff won’t be published by Mulholland Books until May 2011, so I’ll keep my comments brief. Like my favorite Scudder novel When The Sacred Ginmill Closes, it journeys back into the ex-New York cop’s life. Scudder is closing in on the one-year anniversary of his sobriety when he crosses paths with a childhood friend who once ran afoul of the law but has succeeded in recovery. He’s working AA’s difficult Eighth Step – making amends to those you have wronged – when he is murdered by someone hellbent on keeping a past sin buried. The book is a throwback in every sense, revisiting the days when Scudder’s grip on his new life was tenuous at best and Manhattan was free of cell phones, still affordable and still dangerous. To walk those streets again was a treat.