Three Stations, by Martin Cruz Smith

This 2010 work is a disappointment. Cruz Smith still has his novelistic skills, but he reaches here too high in terms of a mystery story.  That is, there is still the marvelous atmosphere of Moscow, the Russian environment, and the Russian people, especially Arkady Renko, his hero detective. And he has set up two intriguing stories, and some intriguing relationships. But the stories never come together, the criminal intrigue is too complex, and the resolution comes after a car chase, meaning with  too sudden a burst of action.

The first story is about a prostitute, Maya, fleeing to Moscow with her newborn baby, and then distraught because her baby has been stolen. The second is the mysterious death of a ballet dancer in a construction trailer, her body left to suggest she was a prostitute. Arkady’s renegade foster son, Zhenya, becomes involved with Maya, trying to help her. And Arkady himself is suspicious of the ballet dancer’s death, with his efforts to determine if it is suicide or murder increasing his conflict with his boss Zurin, and resulting in his being suspended. (And not the first time.)

The action for theses two stories occurs mainly around the Three Stations in Moscow, where train and bus lines come together, and where the poor and criminal elements congregate to prey on others. And these underground people complicate the story when they come into possession of the baby. In fact, we are sidetracked from both Maya’s and Arkady’s stories every so often, in order to check out what is happening to the baby. (Not to mention the violent deaths these underground people suffer when they unwittingly disturb the local drug trade.)

For perhaps two thirds of this book, however, I was fascinated by the Russian atmosphere; the critique of modern, capitalist Russia; Arkady’s problems with his bosses; the conflicts within both the law enforcement officials and the criminal rings; the mysterious billionaire, Vaksberg, who seems to be running a charity event; the ballet company which seems to be hiding something; and Arkady’s young neighbor, Anya, a journalist, who is violently assaulted in the same way the ballet dancer was.

But as I realized the end of the book was approaching and a resolution was needed for all these developments, and as Arkady seemed to be no closer to the facts (plus, the author had left behind Zhenya’s concern for Maya, as well as Maya herself), I became restless. And soon after that the violence begins, with physical attacks on Arkady and a car chase, ending with an accusation of guilt that, despite only circumstantial evidence, is quickly confessed to.

I cannot deny the reading pleasure offered by the first two-thirds of this book. Yet it is as if Cruz Smith has dug himself into an intriguing narrative hole that he cannot dig himself out of. And this makes one suspicious that the author may have lost some of his technical ability to tie together disparate story lines.

Which suggests that future works may be fun to read, even enlightening, but that they will lack the sense of unity required for literary success—and negate any suggestion that in his future work Cruz Smith may take the next step in creating a true novel. (December, 2013)

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