Arkady Renko Returns

Though it’s set in Moscow, Kiev, and Crimea just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Independence Square doesn’t have the epic sweep of The Siberian Dilemma or the rich cultural insights of Tatiana.  

What this novel does have is a very classic, very clever mystery with some terrific misdirection, well-placed clues, and a killer who is, as you’d expect, the least likely person to have been a murderer.

In this tenth book of the series, Renko is struggling with the early onset of Parkinson’s which gives him balance issues and hallucinations, details apparently  drawn from the author’s own experience of the disease. 

Parkinson’s seems to have dulled Renko’s sarcasm about Russia’s cruel absurdities as well as his ability to describe scenes and settings in colorful detail.  However, the book moves quickly and Vladimir Putin is the terrifying menace that hovers over everyone in the book, whether innocent or corrupt.

Renko finds himself investigating two murders after having been stuck by his oafish, vindictive boss doing paperwork at a miserable little desk.  Along the way, his investigation is complicated by brutal cops beating freedom-loving protestors, a horde of nationalistic bikers, a greedy politician, a gorgeous young woman who falls into bed with him, and his former lover, Tatiana. 

Fans of the series will be pleased to see that his adopted son Zhenya is back, still hustling people over a chess board and that Renko is never smug in the way Sherlock Holmes can be.  Reaching one more dead end, he wisely realizes that he “didn’t even know what he didn’t know”–and that scares him, as well it should.

The story is ripped from the headlines with crazed Russians talking about the sanctity of their nation supposedly endangered by Western democracy, Satanism,  and homosexuals.  Too bad that Independence Square skimps on color and texture; when it does plunge into deeper description it feels somewhat muddled.  There’s a freakish set piece near the end where a crowd watches a sort of son et lumière show (with motorcycles!) about Russian history from the Bolshevik Revolution onward and it’s not always easy to visualize.

But that’s redeemed by a heroic effort of Renko’s which skillfully echos many classic edge-of-your-seat movie scenes that are set backstage. ★★★

The former crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press, Lev Raphael has read all of the previous Arkady Renko books at least twice, some of them three times.

Travels Through Europe’s Heart of Darkness

I was born in New York City to immigrant parents, and when I was young, the question “Where do your parents come from?” wasn’t an easy one to answer.

My father had grown up in the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia which had different names over the course of his youth: Subcarpathian Ruthenia, Carpathian Ruthenia, and the Carpatho-Ukraine. But it didn’t belong there anymore. It had been absorbed by the Ukraine and was now part of the USSR.

Some people didn’t even seem to know where Czechoslovakia was, anyway. Now of course, it’s not on the map at all, having split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The city my mother grew up in northeastern Poland was Wilno, but as Vilnius, it was the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. In her years there as a child and a young woman before the Holocaust, it had been variously part of Russia, Poland, Lithuania–but for the majority of those interwar years a Polish city. It had also twice been invaded and ruled by the Germans.

Both my parents spoke a bewildering array of languages and lived in borderlands, as Pulitzer-winning author Anne Applebaum calls them in her dazzling travelogue Between East and West.

Armed with fluent Polish and Russian, the author records amazing interviews and fascinating, lost history as she travels from the Baltic to the Black Sea, visiting almost two dozen cities like Odessa and Minsk whose names are well known in the West. But she mainly stops at smaller cities and towns who have been pinballed over the centuries, swept up in endless wars, invasions, and border changes. En route, she also traverses some areas of Eastern Europe likely unknown to most Americas, each with its own dramatic, many-layered history: Ruthenia, Bukovyna, Moldova.

Some cities have been crushed by neglect, Sovietization, bombing—or all three. Others seem like lost jewels. Everywhere she goes, people from peasants to professors open up to her to reveal contradictory identifications. Russian speakers across these lands, for example, might think of themselves as Ruthenian, Polish, or Ukrainian. The locales she travels through have known immense suffering and chaos, and many of her interviewees come across as shipwrecked. Best of all, her grasp of complicated history in every location is faultless. She’s as observant, canny, and in command of le mot juste and just the right quote or anecdote s Rebecca West was in her masterpiece about the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Here she is in discussion with a fascinating Ukrainian linguist with a Turkish surname who tells her he feels like an outsider in his own country:

“And that, he said, was the most Ukrainian thing of all: to read the history of your country as if you were reading it through an outsider’s eyes. It is the fate or borderland nations always to know yourself through the stories or other, to realize yourself only with the help of others.”

Between East and West is one of the most compelling and thought-provoking travelogues I’ve read in years—and vitally important cultural/historical background now that places like Crimea and the eastern Ukraine keep blasting into the news.

Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love, A Novel of the Gilded Age, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.