three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
14-Jan-Feb-2005
user_rating: 
0

A-WolvesEatDogsRussian detective Arkady Renko debuted in 1981’s Gorky Park and last appeared in Havana Bay (1999). He’s been searching for social justice in Russia ever since. Now, given his problems with authority, he’s a demoted outcast, "a man on the skids." When Moscow billionaire Pasha Ivanov falls out of a penthouse holding a saltshaker and leaving behind a mountain of salt in his apartment, the authorities call it suicide—but Arkady knows better. His investigation takes him to the radioactive zone around Chernobyl, where he uncovers more deaths, crimes, and secrets. Just because the Iron Curtain fell, it doesn’t mean that corruption, secrecy, and shady ethics did, too.
Simon & Schuster. 352 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0684872544

San Jose Mercury News 4 of 5 Stars
"Smith, who is an excellent novelist, makes a great deal of those interesting things to be learned, in a story that doesn’t preach, doesn’t beat readers over the head, but is deeply touching and emotionally involving while giving us a remarkable picture of Chernobyl and its surroundings, and what the Russian people are like today, more than a decade after the breakup of the Soviet Union." John Orr

Boston Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Renko quickly learns the etiquette of dining on homegrown Chernobyl produce without checking his handheld dosimeter for radiation levels. … Wolves Eat Dogs is an engrossing procedural mystery with a satisfyingly slam-bang conclusion that almost gets upstaged by the tragic circumstances of Renko’s new Chernobyl friends." Judith Wynn

Hartford Courant 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Renko is appealing because Smith provides him wit and the kind of wry humor that precludes self-pity. … Like the gray area that is the Zone at Chernobyl, the novel unfolds in ambiguous moral territory where nobody, but everybody, is to blame, so often the case when accident and negligence create a great disaster." Kit Reed

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A master scene painter, Smith vividly captures a region [Chernobyl] studded with checkpoints and warning signs, where dormitories recently constructed for security troops abut ostensibly abandoned houses. … The sense that invisible lethal rays are everywhere infuses this book with an anxious, desperate quality that is relieved only by the occasional darkly humorous aside." Jonathan Mahler

Critical Summary

Arkady’s travails have followed the former Soviet Union’s uneven transition from the KGB and Cold War to the "New Russia" of black markets, poverty, and glitz. Wolves is a standard procedural mystery that starts with a white-collar crime—one thinks, anyway. Lest fans be disappointed, the book turns ugly soon enough. Critics agree that Smith’s look at the social, economic, and political landscape of the Zone of Exclusion’s eerie "black villages," the area surrounding the nuclear reactor meltdown of 1986, is first rate. Arkady, of course, is his usual darkly witty self. Other characters weigh in a little light, and the conclusion leaves some loose ends. But remember, this is the indefatigable Arkady, and he’ll march on, comrade or no comrade.

Supplemental Reading

Gorky Park | Martin Cruz Smith (1981): The first Arkady Renko novel. In an amusement center in Moscow, three frozen bodies are found with their faces and fingers cut off. Chief homicide investigator takes on the KGB, the FBI, and the NYPD to solve the case.

Legacy Photographs from the Chernobyl Exclusion | John Darwell (2001): A series of sad and powerful photographs taken within the 30-kilometer zone surrounding the site of the nuclear accident.