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American Author of Gorky Park Brings Back Russian Detective

The crime novels of Martin Cruz Smith are as famous for their settings as for their intrigue. The American writer created a sensation in 1981 with Gorky Park, which featured a Moscow police investigator named Arkady Renko. Since then, he has published mysteries set in places as varied as Victorian England, World War Two-era Japan and modern-day Cuba. His latest novel, Wolves Eat Dogs, moves from the lavish surroundings of Moscow's newly rich to Chernobyl in Ukraine, site of the historic nuclear power plant disaster.

Wolves Eat Dogs is the fifth novel to feature Arkady Renko, a perpetual misfit and stubborn survivor. The Moscow detective has weathered bullets, demotions, lost love, and the transition from communism to capitalism. He has also provided author Martin Cruz Smith with a way to write about a country that continues to intrigue him, even though he has no Russian background himself.

"You meet a lion one day and a lamb the next and a lion the day after that again," Mr. Smith says. "I'm fascinated by this mutability of the former Soviet Union. And of course one of the causes for that change, for the collapse of the old regime, was in fact the incident at Chernobyl, which really disqualified for a lot of people the moral authority of their own government. The fact that such an accident could happen and that the authorities afterwards reacted in the wrong way and left their own people unprotected."

As Wolves Eat Dogs begins, one of Moscow's new billionaires falls from his tenth floor luxury apartment suite, in what looks like a suicide. But Arkady Renko finds clues that suggest that the death may be more mysterious than it first appears. He follows the trail to the contaminated nuclear site surrounding Chernobyl, the scene of a second violent death. In one early scene, Arkady pursues a shadowy figure through an abandoned school in Pripyat, the ghostly community where Chernobyl's workers once lived:

"Arkady heard another door shut," writes Mr. Smith in the novel. "He ran down a second stairway to the school's other exit, and slowed to navigate a heap of child-sized gas masks. Crates had been delivered and tipped over in a panic. The masks were shaped like sheep heads, with round eyes and rubbery tubes. Arkady burst out the door, too late. He played the flashlight around the plaza and saw nothing. Although, it was wrong to think 'nothing' when the place was so alive with cesium, strontium, plutonium, or pixies of a hundred different isotopes no larger than a microdot hiding here and there."

The book's characters also include people still living around Chernobyl -- a mix of security officials, scientific researchers, elderly peasants, and poachers profiting from the region's abundant wild game. "The Chernobyl area has become the most flourishing wildlife refuge in Europe," says Martin Cruz Smith. "As man has left, he is being replaced by wild boar, deer, antelope, bison and wolves. For them, the worst nuclear accident in history is not as bad as the mere presence of man."

Mr. Smith also made contact with some of Russia's new billionaires, including one who threw a party for 500 friends at his dacha outside Moscow. "There were three stages," the author says, "one with an American rock band he had flown over, one for clowns and dancing, and on the third one there were llamas painted pink. There were famous cosmonauts who'd been paid to come in and walk around, and there were outdoor casinos where new Russians were gambling thousands of dollars." Wolves Eat Dogs includes an account of a similar party.

Martin Cruz Smith says he has much more access to research sources in the new Russia than he did in the former Soviet Union. "It used to be that I couldn't go there," the author recalls. "The nearest I could get back to Russia was on a Soviet factory ship. Now, fortunately, I'm greeted by people who are willing to help me, who are writers, who are in the militia. The last time I was there I was at militia headquarters. I wonder whether any Russian writer would be given as much help here as I am there."

His books are now available in Russian translation. "It used to be you couldn't bring Gorky Park into the country," says the author. "In fact I know people who were put in jail for possession of Gorky Park. Now you can get it at any kiosk in Moscow, as with the rest of my books."

If that makes writing crime novels about a Russian detective a little less challenging, it has not made it any less interesting. Martin Cruz Smith says he finds the new Russia as exciting as the former Soviet Union, and he's already planning another novel set in the literary landscape he has adopted as his own.