Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith: Pan

Arkady Renko returns in Martin Cruz Smith’s latest Russian thriller, Three Stations. Renko, the Platonic ideal of the noir cop, is a Russian of the post-Soviet era, afloat in a corrupt force, constantly suspended or under threat of suspension, unloved, unwanted, a good man swimming in a sewer.
Arkady rescues his colleague in misery, Sgt Victor Orlov, from the drunk tank, and so becomes involved when a young prostitute is found dead - apparently of natural causes - in a workers’ trailer in the area officially called Komsomol Square but known to all Muscovites as Three Stations.
Here, at the conjunction of two Metro lines, ten lanes of traffic and the Leningrad, Kazansky and Yaroslavl train stations, feral children live off the unwary adults passing through. Some children are more innocent: Maya, a child prostitute who has escaped with her baby, only to have the baby stolen by the babushka who befriended her; Zhenko, Arkady’s adopted son, who plays chess for money and nests in an abandoned casino.
As Arkady investigates, more bodies turn up, each posed in one of the basic ballet positions. He follows the trail through the underworld of the poor, and that of the wealthy where a circus entertains millionaires donating money to help street kids, and through the home of every eccentric in Moscow.
Three Stations is a great page-turner. It’s fast, it’s constantly coming up with great turnarounds, it’s full of fabulous characters (the retired pathologist like a woolly mammoth in a white coat, the dog-loving street child and her guard dog Tito, the aged anthropologist devoured by curiosity).
It’s full of abstruse arcana (prison tattoos are a code: each barb on a length of barbed wire is a prison sentence cats show a career as a burglar, a web denotes addiction, a Madonna and Child means the criminal was born into a criminal family, not to the bourgeoisie; each teardrop is a murder victim.
These prison tats are done with a hook and a urine-soot mix. But the tattoo of a butterfly - denoting whoredom - on the first murder victim is clearly a professional job from a tattoo parlour, masquerading as the real thing.
All this should make the perfect thriller. And Martin Cruz Smith has written the perfect thriller before: the superb Tokyo Station, set in Japan in the five days before Pearl Harbour, with a protagonist who is a trickster and a player and a hero.
Here, though, everything’s too complicated. The story is awash with characters, many of them - like the aged anthropologist and the choreographer at the billionaire’s casino; and the mother who’s lost her child and the dog-loving street kid; and the billionaire Sergey and the former ballet star Sasha - too alike. It’s confusing. It’s hard to keep hold of the story when you don’t know the characters.
And Cruz Smith brings in a deus ex machina, in the form of a sudden influx of Tajik drug dealers, to solve a sticky plot point. And we never really discover how the original ballet girl died - only how she was knocked out.
So, if you want a gripping yarn to bring on the train and ferry, this is it. If you want a story that’ll rip your heart out the way Tokyo Station did, not so much. Not yet.
But it's gripping, it's fast-moving, at times it's even funny, and it's well worth buying for that tense train journey.

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