Edna Conrad put the fear of Armageddon in me. My seventh-grade
teacher was a ban-the-bomber, and she introduced her students to
the concept of nuclear peril. It was 1957, the height of the Cold
War. The same year, I read Nevil Shute's ON THE BEACH, about the
Australian survivors of a worldwide holocaust who succumb one by
one to radiation disease. That did it. Long before 9/11, my
nightmares were about the big bang. I never learned to stop
worrying and love the bomb.
Fast-forward to Chernobyl, nearly 20 years after the deadly 1986
nuclear meltdown: The site of the accident looms as large as any
character in WOLVES EAT DOGS, Martin Cruz Smith's fifth novel
featuring the Russian detective Arkady Renko, the Hamlet of cops.
These books are less police procedurals than reports from the soul
of a country in collapse. Renko is a brainy, brooding,
rule-breaking, authority-flouting figure; he was an outsider in the
Soviet Union and is similarly out of step with the opportunistic
mafiosi (mostly former KGB men) and nouveau capitalists of the New
Russia. "Some men march confidently from one historical era to the
next," he says; "others skid."
When one of Russia's self-made billionaires, Pasha Ivanov, exits
through a window of his Moscow condo, Renko stubbornly refuses to
call it a suicide. Then a senior vice president in Ivanov's
company, one Timofeyev, is found murdered near Chernobyl, and Renko
finds himself assigned --- perhaps exiled is a better word
--- to the Zone of Exclusion, the 19-mile-radius radioactive area
around the reactors.
It's hard to imagine that people still carry on in this grim,
contaminated territory, but they do: those who are too old or too
damaged to abandon their homes, soldiers and policemen, scientists.
It is a life measured by Geiger counters, a life in which death is
omnipresent and the work of a homicide detective seems almost
beside the point. Smith visited the Zone while researching this
book (I heard him speak about it last week at the New York Public
Library), and the details of Renko's investigations there are
cruelly true to life: An abandoned school, the children's art still
on the walls. A pine forest turned blood red, poisoned by the
radiation. A death rate twice normal, a cancer rate 65 times
normal. And, ironically, in the absence of human predators, a
furious proliferation of birds and beasts. The Zone, says an
ecologist with whom Renko tours the area, "is the best wild-animal
refuge in Europe.... [N]ormal human activity is worse for nature
than the greatest nuclear accident in history."
Wolves in particular have come back (they are involved peripherally
in Timofeyev's death); watching them stalk deer in the forest,
Renko suddenly has a sense of himself as prey. "Wolves eat dogs" is
the universal explanation of why nobody owns a dog anymore in
Chernobyl. "Wolves hate dogs," an old man says, then makes a fable
--- or a philosophy --- of it: "Wolves hunt down dogs because they
regard them as traitors. If you think about it, dogs are dogs only
because of humans; otherwise they'd all be wolves, right? And where
will we be when all the dogs are gone? It will be the end of
It turns out that Ivanov and Timofeyev were physicists before they
became businessmen, and their punishment --- call it murder by
radiation --- was designed to fit their crimes. But the whodunit
aspect of WOLVES EAT DOGS, while clever, is not what's memorable.
When Smith spoke, he kept talking about how necessary this book
was, and I'm quite sure he didn't mean that the world required
another Arkady Renko novel. What the world does need is a reminder
of the consequences of mishandled nuclear power (something of a
preoccupation for Smith, who wrote an earlier book, STALLION GATE,
about the Los Alamos project). The built-in fatalism of the place
--- "the subtle suspense," as Smith said in his talk, "of living in
a radioactive landscape" --- overshadows the more artificial
tensions of the plot.
And then there is Renko himself. A complex, antiheroic,
all-too-human detective is the hallmark of many of the best crime
novels. In large part it is Renko's compassion and intelligence
that makes the book so satisfying, most significantly in this
lonely man's few personal relationships --- with the perversely
unresponsive Zhenya, an abandoned 11-year-old chess prodigy who
lives in a Moscow children's shelter and who the inspector takes on
weekly outings to the park; and with Eva Kazka, a doctor in the
Zone who, at 13, was also one of Chernobyl's victims ("First the
thyroid and then the tumors," she says, touching her scars).
These days, you don't hear a lot about Chernobyl. It's old news.
But the people there, Smith said, don't want to be forgotten. They
wanted to talk to him, to tell him the truth. "In two hundred and
fifty years, all this will be clean," the ecologist, gesturing to
the forest, says to Renko, as he did to Smith in real life. "Except
for the plutonium; that will take twenty-five thousand
When Smith got home from his visit to the Zone, he told us, he
threw away all his clothes. But he kept what he had learned there,
and he turned it into art. WOLVES EAT DOGS isn't a happy read, but
it is a gripping and important one.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 24, 2011