This book was a bit slow, but in a good way. I haven't read an Arkady Renko book in several years, but my memory of them includes more action, and a faster pace. But maybe not. Also, it didn't help that I have been reading this book in bits and pieces for more than two weeks. Luckily the book ends with a full confession from the killer, which nicely tied up the loose ends for me. Without this, I might have been left confused and frustrated, unsure of whether to blame my confusion on poor plot mechanics, or my befuddled brain.
What this book lacks in punch it more than makes up in atmosphere. Much of the story takes place in the abandoned city of Pripyat, Ukraine, which is inside the Chernobyl "zone of exclusion," the area that was evacuated (and which remains closed) after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. Renko is investigating the murders of two Moscow business tycoons with mysterious ties to the disaster. The author's descriptions of the abandoned city, and the people who nevertheless continue to inhabit it are fascinating.
I found a web site that is filled with photos of Pripyat. The city, located only a few kilometers from the nuclear reactor, and home mostly to workers from the plant, was evacuated three days after the disaster, with the residents forced to leave their possessions behind because they were contaminated by radiation. Thus the city is like a time capsule, stuck forever in 1986, and while it is in disrepair from a combination of contamination and neglect, it is still surprisingly intact. Apparently you can visit it (with appropriate clearance), though you should take a dosimeter along, as many parts are still deadly. Soldiers, policemen, researchers and some squatters are the only residents.
The photos show (and Martin Cruz Smith describes) a fairly well preserved slice of life in the Soviet Union in the mid-eighties, complete with supermarkets filled with goods, and apartments still containing personal belongings, none of which can be removed because they are so radioactive. The web site contains pictures and articles about people's memories of growing up in the city, and of having to flee so suddenly, and descriptions of their return visits. Imagine if you could just go back to the house you lived in in 1986, and find your stuff still in your room, and your school classroom just as you left it in 4th grade, complete with your artwork still up on the wall.
Martin Cruz Smith uses this surreal aspect of life in Pripyat to great advantage in the book. He's always been excellent at making the strange seem normal, which seem to be a feature of life in the Soviet Union (and now in Russia and Ukraine). Things are never exactly what they seem in his books, and the city of Pripyat is an excellent metaphor for this.
(Book 14, 2006)