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It’s a Mystery: “A man who lets guilt ruin pleasure is the pincushion of fate”

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By Martin Cruz Smith
Simon & Schuster, 2013

Sins of the Flesh

By Colleen McCullough
Simon & Schuster, 2013

The groundbreaking Gorky Park (1981), by Martin Cruz Smith, marked the dazzling debut of Senior Investigator Arkady Renko. From the beginning, Arkady was an anomaly in Soviet society: too vigorous in his pursuit of justice; too intelligent to accept Party doublethink; as cynical as Philip Marlowe, but with the heart of a Chekhovian everyman.

His last appearance was in Three Stations (2010). In that novel, though the Soviet Union that once banned Gorky Park no longer exists, the land he insightfully depicts looks no more inviting. The enemies once were KGB agents, Soviet corruption and American capitalists; now they’re power-hungry bureaucrats, Russian corruption and Russian capitalists—those trading in public utilities, as well as trading in human flesh. The KGB is now the SVR, but plus ça change… Arkady, who has survived the cultural passage from the old Russia to the new Russia, will attest to that.

As Smith’s new novel, Tatiana, unfolds, three pivotal events converge to form the crux of a mystery that propels Arkady on a complex and dangerous path to its resolution. First, Tatiana Petrovna, a brilliant, controversial investigative reporter falls to her death from her sixth floor apartment in Moscow.

Tatiana was indeed a troublemaker. She attacked corruption among politicians and police. Her favorite targets were the former KGB who dwelled like bats in the Kremlin….She could have blackmailed her way to material luxury—but was content with her dead-end apartment… “Every snail prefers its own shell,” Tatiana had said. But she knew. One way or another, it was just a matter of time.

Her character was inspired by Anna Politikovskaya, the journalist who defied Putin and was murdered in 2006. With the official cause of Tatiana’s death listed as a suicide, Arkady is told the case is closed. Except that he is the original bird dog whose level of persistence would long ago have killed lesser men. It helps that the corpse goes missing before an autopsy can be performed. In Moscow, the police have lost bodies for years; it’s apparently one of their functions. Arkady reclassifies the case as a theft of human remains, a cover story that gives him the widest possible berth to snoop and snare trouble big time. Then, In the same week, Grisha Grigorenko, a billionaire philanthropist, as well as a “glorified leg breaker,” is shot in the back of the head:

There were two Grishas. There was the public benefactor, patron of charities and the arts, and a leading member of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce. Then there was the Grisha who had his thumb in drugs, arms and prostitution.

The first Grisha is given a state funeral which Arkady and his sidekick, Detective Sergeant Victor Orlov are forced to attend:

Victor was a bloodshot wreck who substituted Fonta for vodka. Or tried. Because of his drinking no one dared work with him but Arkady. As long as he was working a case, he was sober and a good detective. He was like a hoop that stayed upright as long as it was moving, and fell when it stopped.

What counted is that he always had Arkady’s back. The funeral crowd is a mixed bag of Grisha’s former allies and enemies—all with their eyes on the power void. Mix in Alexi Grigorenko, the heir apparent whose life is in danger on principle. He’s a spoiled rich kid with a penchant for ugly mischief. He’s a constant thorn in Arkady’s side.

gorkyparkThe third pivotal event takes place in Kalingrad, the Baltic port which has the distinction of having the highest crime rate in Russia. Small wonder it was Grigorenko’s seat of power. And it’s the perfect setting for a meeting of international businessman—actually various criminal elements who might be labeled the Russian mafia. The body of an elite government translator, Joseph Bonnafo, who was their chief interpreter, washes up on the dunes. He leaves behind his notebook, which is filled with cryptic symbols. Translators create their own form of shorthand, incomprehensible even to the best cryptographers because the key to the code is the translator’s life. To the outside world, Joseph’s book is a mass of enigmatic doodles.

Through a set of particularly murky circumstances, the notebook winds up among Tatiana’s possessions. And then, of course, it lands in Arkady’s lap. He turns it over to Zhenya, the chess genius-cum-hustler he’s had under his wing for many years, to try his hand at cracking the code. (The back story on Zhenya is in Stalin’s Ghost, from 2007). Also among Tatiana’s effects are her numerous cassettes containing notes for all the stories she’s ever covered. No surprise, her reports differ significantly from the official versions so familiar to Arkady. As he listens to her past, she becomes as real to him as though she was still alive:

…listening to the tapes, he thought he knew her and that they had met before. Was that obsessive?

“So nothing changes,” Tatiana said. “Russia is a drunken bear, sometimes an entertainment, sometimes a threat, often a genius, but as night falls, always a drunken bear curled up in the corner. Sometimes, in another corner lies a journalist whose arms and hands have systematically been broken. The thugs who do such work are meticulous. We don’t have to go to Chechnya to find such men. We recruit them and train them and call them patriots. And when they find an honest journalist, they let the bear loose…. In the meantime, I’ll stay ahead of the bear as long as I can.”

Once the race to uncover what the translator knew turns lethal, Arkady makes a stunning discovery that takes him even deeper into Tatiana’s past and, paradoxically, into Russia’s future. In fact, the most intriguing character after Arkady Renko in the Smith novels is contemporary Russia. And what is fascinating is that Smith shows us in his own original way that Churchill’s description of Russia in 1939—“It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”—remains remarkably accurate. Once again, Martin Cruz Smith does not disappoint, Tatiana is a multidimensional, richly rewarding novel.

SinsofthefleshIt is a fact that to this day, Colleen McCullough’s crowning achievement remains her luminous second novel, The Thorn Birds (1977). This in no way detracts from the solid body of work she has produced since. In 2006 with On, Off she began a delightful detective series featuring police Captain Carmine Delmonico. Carmine’s beat is the so-called sleepy college town of Holloman, Connecticut home to Chubb University. And in the time honored fashion of such towns, it is rich in eccentrics. And “sleepy” is a misnomer.

Of course, eccentrics abound throughout detective fiction. Go back to Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, wherein both detectives Cuff and Jennings are eccentric outsiders, and much of the novel’s effectiveness derives from their being so. In the Sherlock Holmes canon, the most spectacular eccentric is the Great Detective himself. Dorothy Sayers peoples her novels with them, starting with Lord Peter Wimsey and his family. In Agatha Christie there’s a plethora of oddballs: just look at all those dotty old ladies who live in St. Mary Mead. Lady Angkatell in The Hollow (1946) is one of Christie’s prize eccentrics. In a common ploy, she uses her eccentricity to cover up another’s crime. As I have noted, in the university world, which has been the scene of scores of great mysteries, eccentrics abound. Among the best are Sayers’s Gaudy Night (1935), Robert Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript (1973), Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat (1974), Amanda Cross’s Death in a Tenured Position (1981)—to mention but a few.

Add Colleen McCullough’s latest, Sins of the Flesh, to this list. It’s August 1969 and Captain Carmine Delmonico, last seen in The Prodigal Son (2012), is on a family vacation. He has taken his wife Desdemona and two sons to Beverly Hills to visit his old pal, the movie mogul Myron Mendel Mandelbaum. Back home, Sergeant Delia Carstairs and Lieutenant Abe Goldberg are dealing with two anonymous male corpses, nicknamed Jeb and James Doe, that have surfaced—emaciated and emasculated. After connecting the victims to four previous John Does with similar MO’s, the first dating back to 1966, they realize that there is a psychopathic killer loose in Holloman:

“It’s a very unusual way to murder,” said Delia, grimacing, “because the degree of premeditation is truly formidable—I mean it takes weeks if not months, and can be stopped at any time.”

…”How would anyone light on starvation as a modus operandi? You’d need a dungeon.” Abe’s freckled face betrayed dismay. “We have had our share of underground premises in Holloman lately.”

“Exactly!” Delia cried, excited. “Starvation is a Middle Ages form of murder.”

This exchange, though you might not think so, turns out to be wholly prescient. And once Carmine learns what his team has on their hands, he high-tails it back to lead them. The knowledge that the victims had to have been held somewhere thethornbirdssoundproof twenty-four-seven for at least a couple of months gives them a list of places to check.

Abe, whose specialty was hidey-holes, decides to explore Busquash Manor, the great pile atop Busquash Peninsula. Everything he has heard about the bizarre inhabitants makes them ripe for scrutiny. They call themselves Rha Tanais and Rufus Ingham, are charmingly canny about their real names, and both, it seems to Abe, are larger than life. They usher him into an immense space that encompasses a theater whose size rivals some Broadway playhouses. A tour leads to a restaurant-sized kitchen where they serve superb coffee and declare in unison: “We’ve been together now for forty years, and it don’t seem a daaay too long!”

Then they ask him to state his business:

Abe did so succinctly, unsure whether rumors about the six Doe bodies had ever penetrated as high in homosexual strata as this one… “I’m going to have at least two likenesses of the later Does shortly, and I’m here to ask you if you’d mind looking at them,” Abe concluded…. Expert opinion says they were all around twenty years of age and likely to be seeking careers on the stage or in film…”

Rufus said softly, “We always have scads of young things passing through and learning the trade. At seventy miles from New York City, Holloman is an ideal jumping off place before hitting the urban nightmare. Girls and boys both, we see them. They stay anything from a week to a year with us, and I’m glad you found us first rather than last. We might be able to help, but even if it turns out we can’t, we can keep our eyes and ears open.”

They watch Abe walk to his unmarked car:

“He’s very, very smart,” said Rufus.

…”I suggest, Rufus my love, that we be tremendously co-operative and astronomically helpful.”

Driving away, Abe thinks: Rha and Rufus know all the John Does.

Meanwhile, two of Delia’s friends emerge with crucial ties to the investigation. Ivy Ramsbottom (when it comes to names McCullough is irrepressible) is Rha’s sister and shares a dark and painful past with him. Then there’s Dr. Jess Wainfleet, the director of the Holloman Institute for the Criminally Insane. Her blind ambition leads to a disastrous decision with horrific consequences for a patient with whom she’s been particularly close. By the time Delia alerts Carmine to their sinister connection to the case, another vicious murder occurs. Carmine realizes that there are two killers at large. And that he and Delia are the most vulnerable.

Sins of the Flesh is McCullough’s best mystery yet. It’s unique and frightening and fun. The characters are splendid, sky-high improbable but always rooted in the simple albeit subtle truth.
Hindsight flies just about as high as the detective novel can go.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.