By Stephen Dewar
Veteran cop Arkady Renko is back: older, wiser, and having a hard time adjusting to post-Soviet Russia. In the latest thriller about the cop who cracked the case in Gorky Park over twenty years ago, Renko can’t understand why Pasha Ivanov would want to kill himself by jumping from his tenth-floor apartment in Moscow. You can see his point — the man was an oligarch of billionaire proportions. And what is the significance of the 50-kilo mountain of salt in his bedroom closet? The bloody handprints on the windowsill might seem suspicious to some, but unfortunately, Renko’s superiors would prefer if he just classified the incident as suicide. He doesn’t, and as a result, our indefatigable protagonist finds himself transferred to the Chernobyl area where he experiences all sorts of irradiation, adventures and dangers before the truth finally becomes clear. In this book, Smith skillfully weaves together wry observations on New Russian values, compelling descriptions of the bleak Ukranian landscape and a riveting murder mystery. The result is rattling good stuff by a master.
Wolves Eat Dogs, by Martin Cruz Smith, Simon and Schuster, $17.13.
The Big Chill
Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 was one of those great historic mistakes which really did change the course of European and Russian history. As with so many other major events, neither Napoleon nor Tsar Alexander initially wanted this war, but once it started, both sides made extraordinary errors of strategic and tactical importance, alongside deeds of exceptional heroism. Historian Adam Zamoyski, drawing widely upon firsthand accounts by Russian, French, Polish, German and Italian participants, provides a comprehensive and readable account of the whole ghastly affair, including good descriptions of the main protagonists and the rivalries within both high commands. Now that winter has got us firmly in its grip, it’s not so difficult to imagine the unbearable horrors of the Great Retreat — and, as we now know, the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s ambitions.
Moscow 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March, by Adam Zamoyski, HarperCollins, $19.77.
Why the World Didn’t End with a Bang
Of those of us old enough to have been around in October 1962, there can be few who don’t shiver at the memory of the Cuban missile crisis. The whole point of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), we thought, was to make nuclear confrontation and war impossible and unthinkable. But the Cuban crisis almost proved us wrong. America and the Soviet Union were, it seemed, ready to launch missiles at each other over the positioning of Soviet weapon systems just to the south of the U.S. Max Frankel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from The New York Times, gives a gripping account of the crisis and its resolution, focusing on the interactions of the charismatic, youthful, first-ever Roman Catholic President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, and the stodgy, poorly-educated, blood-stained, Stalin-acolyte-turned-denouncer, Nikita Khrushchev. There is little new here in terms of archival revelations, but it is a chilling reminder of how the biggest enemies of both protagonists were, perhaps, the hawks in their own inner circles of advisers.
High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Max Frankel, Presidio Press, $16.29.