After a few uneven novels, Martin Cruz Smith has plucked Arkady Renko, the hero of Gorky Park, Polar Star and Red Square, out of a seven-year freeze to take on the baddies once again. By sending Detective Renko to Havana to identify the body of his old friend Sergei Pribluda, Smith sets himself a considerable challenge: Not only must he provide the sophisticated whirls of intrigue for which Gorky Park is famous; he has to make the country seem real from a Russian's perspective. Arkady has to assimilate language, customs and even a little Cuban forensicology at a dizzying rate. But the tropical locations of Havana Bay reward both the author who meets the challenge by grounding the book with precise, credible detail and his inexhaustible protagonist.
A cabal of Cuban police officers wants to prevent Arkady from identifying the body, and, if possible, to prevent him from going home alive. Only one officer, a single mother named Ofelia Osorio, comes to his assistance, and together the two try to get to the heart of an international conspiracy of venal, murderous thugs. Their love affair is as predictable as a car collision on the local news and, as far as the writing is concerned, just as disastrous. "He was in her and she wrapped herself around him. Her tongue was sweet, her back hard, and where he joined her she was endlessly deep." Or another clunker: "Outside, he heard the ocean say, This is the wave that will sweep away the sand, topple the buildings and flood the streets. This is the wave. This is the wave." Well, look out, Miami!
Happily, Smith has a more delicate touch with the rest of the novel. He takes the reader along with Arkady on a hairpin-curve tour through the topics of Russo-Cuban relations, Santeria and the local conventions of hustling with the unsentimental deftness of a seasoned guide. Smith, like other Cold War writers, has had some difficulty in the past few years finding the emerging markets for intrigue. His 1992 novel Red Square was an interesting but shallow dive into Moscow's organized crime problem; his most recent novel, Rose, was an ambitious piece of historical fiction about the perils of coal mining in England. So while the art of John Le Carre, an acknowledged master, has found new outlets in such novels as The Tailor of Panama, Smith's writing hasn't suffered much, but it hasn't excelled, either. Now it has. Though the author may not have a deft hand with his love scenes, what has love got to do with the spy business, anyhow?
Literate and exciting.
...[H]is earnest unsentimentality and calm tenaciousness on the hunt are what make Renko one of the most interesting detectives in modern fiction. What a clever stroke for Smith to dispatch him to Havanawhere sentimentality and passion are in rare abundance. The New York Times Book Review
Havana Bay marks the fourth appearance -- and the first in nearly seven years -- of Martin Cruz Smith's exemplary Russian investigator, Arkady Renko. Renko, who was first seen in Smith's landmark suspense novel, Gorky Park , is a battered, world-weary survivor of the recent series of upheavals that have shattered Russian society. As Havana Bay opens, his life has reached its lowest ebb yet. He has lost the great love of his life, the former dissident Irina Asanova, to an absurd and heartbreaking accident, and has just been called to Cuba to identify the body of a long-time comrade.
The comrade in question, Sergei Prebluda, is the former KGB agent who was Renko's nemesis and savior in Gorky Park. Prebluda, ostensibly serving as Russia's "sugar attaché" in Cuba, has disappeared, and a body believed to be his has washed up in Havana Bay. Renko refuses to make a positive identification, partly because the decomposing body is literally unrecognizable, and partly to goad the Cuban authorities into actively investigating the circumstances surrounding Prebluda's disappearance. Shortly after this refusal, Renko himself is attacked under ironic circumstances: He is attempting suicide when a Cuban thug assaults him with a knife. Acting reflexively, Renko kills his assailant with the weapon he has planned to use on himself. From this point on, he is relentlessly absorbed in a complex investigation that opens a window onto life in modern Cuba, and that provides Renko with the stimulus he needs to reconnect with the world.
Following in Prebluda's footsteps, Renko -- aided by a beautiful, and beautifully characterized, Cuban detective named Ofelia Osorio -- gradually uncovers an assortment of schemes, scams, and conspiracies involving an international cabal known as the Havana Yacht Club. Headed by an expatriate American millionaire and populated by a variety of fugitives, patriots, and political opportunists, the Yacht Club stands at the center of a labyrinthine plot that begins with the mystery of Sergei Prebluda's fate and widens to encompass the paranoid designs of El Commandante himself: Fidel Castro.
Havana Bay provides further evidence that Smith is one of the most polished, exacting stylists working today, in or out of the thriller genre. He drives his complex plot steadily forward through a clean, clear, richly-nuanced prose that never allows itself a moment's imprecision. The quality of the writing is reason enough to read this book, but there are other, equally compelling reasons. One is Smith's flawless, often astonishing, sense of place. His portrait of Havana, with its complex mixture of cynicism and idealism, beauty and squalor, revolutionary politics and Caribbean-style paganism, is as colorful and convincing as the lovingly rendered Moscow of Gorky Park . Another reason lies in Smith's continually evolving presentation of his central character, Arkady Renko.
Renko has emerged as one of the great characters of modern suspense fiction, as memorable, in his way, as John Le Carré's George Smiley or P. D. James's Adam Dalgliesh. Stubborn, vulnerable, and ironic, Renko is a natural outsider who has survived the barbarities of the Soviet regime with honor and humanity intact. A born investigator, he is driven by the need for clarity and closure. A man of deep feelings and complicated loyalties, his life has been shaped by the depth of his passion for a woman who has died. He is a genuine, three-dimensional creation, and it is, as always, a pleasure to renew his acquaintance.
Smith is not a prolific writer -- Havana Bay is only the sixth novel he has published since Gorky Park appeared in 1981 -- but his books are always meticulously crafted, always worth the wait. His audience appears to have decreased over the past few years, and that's a shame, because Smith is one of those writers who keeps the standards high, who reminds us that literature and popular entertainment need not be considered mutually exclusive categories. Like the best of Smith's earlier work, Havana Bay makes literature out of the political and ideological divisions of the late 20th century. It is vital, engaging, deeply humane fiction that should not, on any account, be ignored.
Arkady Renko, perhaps Russia's last honest policeman, has arrived in Cuba to look into the death of a colleague. Opening on a corpse scene so gruesome that Virginia's Kay Scarpetta might get the willies, the plot quickly submerges into a surreal cauldron of dark beliefs, Cuban patriotism, and American wheeling and dealing. Where in Polar Star (Random, 1989) Smith explored the coldest regions, here he glories in the Caribbean riot of sensual heat and light. There are cameo characters who capture Fidel's Cuba while Arkady struggles with the elemental challenges of survival and discovery. This novel illuminates the dark corners of a sunny Havana and deftly portrays a society trapped in a Soviet legacy of deprivation and control. Smith writes incomparably well while willing the reader to reach for understanding of the human passions he describes. Every library will soon have a long waiting list for this spectacular new book. [A BOMC main selection; previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/99.]--Barbara Conaty, Library of Congress Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
What ultimately sets the Renko books apart is the careful writing, and, more important, the knowledge of the human heart that is carried through it, through them, first to last
A richly intricate mystery made more compelling by its setting. Martin Cruz Smith's panorama is both dazzling and dead-on.
The New York Times
The welcome return of one of the two (along with George Smiley) most memorable characters in modern thrillers. Arkady Renko, the smart, humane, often despairing but idealistic and persistent Moscow detective introduced in Gorky Park (1981) and brought back in Polar Star (1989) and Red Square (1992) is still attempting to nail the bad guys. But in chaotic post–Soviet Russia, a world where the villains seem to be proliferating, his job keeps getting harder. Still reeling from a personal tragedy (likely to unsettle devoted readers of the series), Arkady seizes the opportunity to leave Moscow for a brief trip to Havana. His old acquaintance Pribluda, a KGB bureaucrat, has apparently turned up dead in the harbor. But is it Pribluda? The body is too decayed to allow definite identification. The Cubans, struggling to survive in a world without the Soviet Union, have a barely restrained loathing for Russians and no great interest in investigating the death. Arkady, who's contemplating suicide and feeling useless and lost, is energizedhours after having entered Cubaby an attempt on his life. He manages to kill his attacker, thereby becoming a figure of considerable interest to the small Russian diplomatic community and various factions in the Cuban government. With the help of Ofelia Osorio, a bright, competent, maverick policewoman, Arkady begins to sort out the tangled threads of the case. Smith has always demonstrated a genius for detail, and his powers are working at their peak here; his portraits of a threadbare, vibrant Havana, the various classes in Castro's classless Cuba, and the resilient, sardonic Cuban response to an impoverished existence, are vivid, assured, andconvincing. Smith has also always had a genius for complex conspiracies, and the one that Arkady and Ofelia uncover is typically audacious and believable. The climax, as Arkady struggles for his life in the waters of Havana Bay, is masterfully paced. A strong, satisfying addition to one of the most memorable and idiosyncratic series of modern thrillers. (Book-of-the-Month Club main selection; Author tour)
From the Publisher
“IRRESISTIBLE . . . THE PLOT HAS PLENTY OF TWISTS. . . . THE CLIMAX IS WONDERFULLY PACED . . . SIZZLE[S] WITH AN AUTHENTICITY THAT IS RARE INDEED.”
“RIPE WITH THE RHYTHMS AND TROPICAL HEAT OF MODERN-DAY CUBA . . . Another fine entry in an enjoyable series of spy novels . . . The year’s steamiest read.”
–The Wall Street Journal
“A SUPERBLY WRITTEN THRILLER . . . Smith’s best Arkady Renko novel since Gorky Park . . . Smith, like his peers, John le Carré and Walter Mosley, writes novels that transcend any genre.”
–The Denver Post
Read an Excerpt
Detective Osorio methodically laid out supplies that the dead man had taken to sea: thermos, wicker box, and plastic bags of candles, rolls of tape, twine, hooks and extra line.
Usually, an examiner cut at the hairline and peeled the forehead over the face to reach the skull. Since in this case both the forehead and the face had already slipped off and bade adieu in the bay, Blas proceeded directly with a rotary saw to uncover the brain, which proved rotten with worms that reminded Arkady of the macaroni served by Aeroflot. As the nausea rose he had Rufo lead him to a tiny, chain-flush lavatory, where he threw up, so perhaps he wasn't so inured after all, he thought. Maybe he had just reached his limit. Rufo was gone, and walking back to the autopsy theater on his own, Arkady went by a room perfumed by carboys of formaldehyde and decorated with anatomical charts. On a table two feet with yellow toenails stuck out from a sheet. Between the legs lay an oversized syringe connected by a tube to a tub of embalming fluid on the floor, a technique used in the smallest, most primitive Russian villages when electric pumps failed. The needle of the syringe was particularly long and narrow to fit into an artery, which was thinner than a vein. Between the feet were rubber gloves and another syringe in an unopened plastic bag. Arkady slipped the bag into his jacket pocket.
When Arkady returned to his seat, Rufo was waiting with a recuperative Cuban cigarette. By that time, the brain had been weighed and set aside while Dr. Blas fit head and jaw together.
Although Rufo's lighter was the plastic disposable sort, he said it had been refilled twenty times. "The Cuban record isover a hundred."
Arkady bit the cigarette, inhaled. "What kind is this?"
" 'Popular.' Black tobacco. You like it?"
"It's perfect." Arkady let out a plume of smoke as blue as the exhaust of a car in distress.
Rufo's hand kneaded Arkady's shoulder. "Relax. You're down to bones, my friend."
The officer who had taken the keys from Osorio returned. At the other table, after Blas had measured the skull vertically and across the brow, he spread a handkerchief and diligently scrubbed the teeth with a toothbrush. Arkady handed Rufo a dental chart he had brought from Moscow (an investigator's precaution), and the driver trotted the envelope down to Blas, who systematically matched the skull's brightened grin to the chart's numbered circles. When he was done he conferred with Captain Arcos, who grunted with satisfaction and summoned Arkady down to the theater floor.
Rufo interpreted. "The Russian citizen Sergei Sergeevich Pribluda arrived in Havana eleven months ago as an attaché to the Russian embassy. We knew, of course, that he was a colonel in the KGB. Excuse me, the new Federal Security Service, the SVR."
"Same thing," Arkady said.
The captain-and in his wake, Rufo-went on. "A week ago the embassy informed us that Pribluda was missing. We did not expect them to invite a senior investigator from the Moscow prosecutor's office. Perhaps a family member, nothing more."
Arkady had talked to Pribluda's son, who had refused to come to Havana. He managed a pizzeria, a major responsibility.
Rufo went on. "Fortunately, the captain says, the identification performed today before your eyes is simple and conclusive. The captain says that a key found in the effects was taken to the apartment of the missing man where it unlocked the door. From an examination of the body recovered from the bay, Dr. Blas estimates that it is a Caucasoid male approximately fifty to sixty years of age, 165 centimeters in height, 90 kilos in weight, in every regard the same as the missing man. Moreover, the dental chart of the Russian citizen Pribluda you yourself brought shows one lower molar filled. That molar in the recovered jaw is a steel tooth which, in the opinion of Dr. Blas, according to the captain, is typical Russian dental work. Do you agree?"
"From what I saw, yes."
"Dr. Blas says he finds no wounds or broken bones, no signs of violence or foul play. Your friend died of natural causes, perhaps a stroke or aneurysm or heart attack, it would be almost impossible to determine which for a body in this condition. The doctor hopes he did not suffer long."
"That's kind of him." Although the doctor appeared more smug than sympathetic.
"The captain, for his part, asks if you accept the observations of this autopsy?"
"I'd like to think about it."
"Well, you accept the conclusion that the body recovered is that of the Russian citizen Pribluda?"
Arkady turned to the examining table. What had been a bloated cadaver was now split and gutted. Of course, there had been no face or eyes to identify anyway, and finger bones never did yield prints, but someone had lived in that ruined body.
"I think an inner tube in the bay is a strange place to find a Russian citizen."
"The captain says they all think that."
"Then there will be an investigation?"
Rufo said, "It depends."
"On many factors."
"The captain says your friend was a spy. What he was doing when he died was not innocent. The captain can predict your embassy will ask us to do nothing. We are the ones who could make an international incident of this, but frankly it is not worth the effort. We will investigate in our own time, in our own way, although in this Special Period the Cuban people cannot afford to waste resources on people who have revealed themselves to be our enemy. Now do you understand what I mean?" Rufo paused while Arcos took a second to compose himself. "The captain says an investigation depends on many factors. The position of our friends at the Russian embassy must be taken into account before premature steps are taken. The only issue we have here is an identification of a foreign national who has died on Cuban territory. Do you accept it is the Russian citizen Sergei Pribluda?"
"It could be," Arkady said.
Dr. Blas sighed, Luna took a deep breath and Detective Osorio weighed the keys in her palm. Arkady couldn't help feeling like a difficult actor. "It probably is, but I can't say conclusively that this body is Pribluda. There's no face, no prints and I doubt very much that you will be able to type the blood. All you have is a dental chart and one steel tooth. He could be another Russian. Or one of thousands of Cubans who went to Russia. Or a Cuban who had a tooth pulled by a Cuban dentist who trained in Russia. Probably you're right, but that's not enough. You opened Pribluda's door with a key. Did you look inside?"
Dr. Blas asked in precisely snipped Russian, "Did you bring any other identification from Moscow?"
"Just this. Pribluda sent it a month ago." Arkady dug out of his passport case a snapshot of three men standing on a beach and squinting at the camera. One man was so black he could have been carved from jet. He held up a glistening rainbow of a fish for the admiration of two whites, a shorter man with a compensating tower of steel-wool hair and, partially obscured by the others, Pribluda. Behind them was water, a tip of beach, palms.
Blas studied the photograph and read the scribble on the back. "Havana Yacht Club."
"There is such a yacht club?" Arkady asked.
"There was such a club before the Revolution," Blas said. "I think your friend was making a joke."
Rufo said, "Cubans love grandiose titles. A 'drinking society' can be friends in a bar."
"The others don't look Russian to me. You can make copies of the picture and circulate them."
The picture went around to Arcos, who put it back into Arkady's hands as if it were toxic. Rufo said, "The captain says your friend was a spy, that spies come to bad ends, as they deserve. This is typically Russian, pretending to help and then stabbing Cuba in the back. The Russian embassy sends out its spy and, when he's missing, asks us to find him. When we find him, you refuse to identify him. Instead of cooperating, you demand an investigation, as if you were still the master and Cuba was the puppet. Since that is no longer the case, you can take your picture back to Moscow. The whole world knows of the Russian betrayal of the Cuban people and, well, he says some more in that vein."
Arkady gathered as much. The captain looked ready to spit.
Rufo gave Arkady a push. "I think it's time to go."
Detective Osorio, who had been quietly following the conversation, suddenly revealed fluent Russian. "Was there a letter with the picture?"
"Only a postcard saying hello," Arkady said. "I threw it away."
"Idiota," Osorio said, which nobody bothered to translate.
"It's lucky you're going home, you don't have many friends here," Rufo said. "The embassy said to put you in an apartment until the plane."
They drove by three-story stone town houses transformed by the revolution into a far more colorful backdrop of ruin and decay, marble colonnades refaced with whatever color was available-green, ultramarine, chartreuse. Not just ordinary green, either, but a vibrant spectrum: sea, lime, palm and verdigris. Houses were as blue as powdered turquoise, pools of water, peeling sky, the upper levels enlivened by balconies of ornate ironwork embellished by canary cages, florid roosters, hanging bicycles. Even dowdy Russian cars wore a wide variety of paint, and if their clothes were drab most of the people had the slow grace and color of big cats. They paused at tables offering guava paste, pastries, tubers and fruits. One girl shaving ices was streaked red and green with syrup, another girl sold sweetmeats from a cheesecloth tent. A locksmith rode a bicycle that powered a key grinder; he wore goggles for the sparks and shavings flying around him as he pedaled in place. The music of a radio hanging in the crook of a pushcart's umbrella floated in the air.
"Is this the way to the airport?" Arkady asked.
"The flight is tomorrow. Usually there's only one Aeroflot flight a week during the winter, so they don't want you to miss it." Rufo rolled the window down. "Phew, I smell worse than fish."
"Autopsies stay with you." Arkady had left his overcoat outside the operating theater and separated the coat now from the paper bag holding Pribluda's effects. "If Dr. Blas and Detective Osorio speak Russian, why were you along?"
"There was a time when it was forbidden to speak English. Now Russian is taboo. Anyway, the embassy wanted someone along when you were with the police, but someone not Russian. You know, I never knew anyone so unpopular so fast as you."
"That's a sort of distinction."
"But now you're here you should enjoy yourself. Would you like to see the city, go to a café, to the Havana Libre? It used to be the Hilton. They have a rooftop restaurant with a fantastic view. And they serve lobster. Only state restaurants are allowed to serve lobster, which are assets of the state."
"No, thanks." The idea of cracking open a lobster after an autopsy didn't sit quite right.
"Or a paladar, a private restaurant. They're small, they're only allowed twelve chairs but the food is much superior. No?"
Perhaps Rufo didn't get a chance to dine out often, but Arkady didn't think he could even watch someone eat.
"No. The major and sergeant were in green uniforms, the detective in gray and blue. Why was that?"
"She's police and they're from the Ministry of the Interior. We just call it Minint. Police are under Minint."
Arkady nodded; in Russia the militia was under the same ministry. "But Arcos and Luna don't usually go out on homicides?"
"I don't think so."
"Why was the captain going on about the Russian embassy?"
"He has a point. In the old days Russians acted like lords. Even now, for Cuban police to ask questions at the embassy takes a diplomatic note. Sometimes the embassy cooperates and sometimes it doesn't."
Most of the traffic was Russian Ladas and Moskviches spraying exhaust and then, waddling as ponderously as dinosaurs, American cars from before the Revolution. Rufo and Arkady got out at a two-story house decorated like a blue Egyptian tomb with scarabs, ankhs and lotuses carved in stucco. A car on blocks sat in residence on the porch.
"'57 Chevrolet." Rufo looked inside at the car's gutted interior, straightened and ran his hand over the flecked paint. From the back. "Tail fins." To the front bumper. "And tits."
From the car key in the bag of effects Arkady knew that Pribluda had a Lada. No breasts on a Russian car.
As they went in and climbed the stairs the door to the ground-floor apartment cracked enough for a woman in a housedress to follow their progress.
"A concierge?" Arkady asked.
"A snoop. Don't worry, at night she watches television and doesn't hear a thing."
"I'm going back tonight."
"That's right." Rufo unlocked the upstairs door. "This is a protocol apartment the embassy uses for visiting dignitaries. Well, lesser dignitaries. I don't think we've had anyone here for a year."
"Is someone from the embassy coming to talk about Pribluda?"
"The only one who wants to talk about Pribluda is you. You like cigars?"
"I've never smoked a cigar."
"We'll talk about it later. I'll be back at midnight to take you to the plane. If you think the flight to Havana was long, wait till you go back to Moscow."
The apartment was furnished with a set of cream-and-gold dining chairs, a sideboard with a coffee service, a nubby sofa, red phone, a bookshelf with titles like La Amistad Russo-Cubana and Fidel y Arte supported by erotic bookends in mahogany. In a disconnected refrigerator a loaf of Bimbo Bread was spotted with mold. The air conditioner was dead and showed the carbon smudges of an electrical fire. Arkady thought he probably showed some carbon smudges of his own.
He stripped from his clothes and showered in a stall of tiles that poured water from every valve and washed the odor of the autopsy off his skin and from his hair. He dried himself on the scrap of towel provided and stretched out on the bed under his overcoat in the dark of the bedroom and listened to the voices and music that filtered from outside through the closed shutters of the window. He dreamed of floating among the playing fish of Havana Bay. He dreamed of flying back to Moscow and not landing, just circling in the night.
Russian planes did that, sometimes, if they were so old that their instruments failed. Although there could be other factors. If a pilot made a second landing approach he could be charged for the extra fuel expended, so he made only one, good or not. Or they were overloaded or underfueled.
He was both.
Circling sounded good.