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"Three Stations," the new thriller by Martin Cruz Smith, author of "Gorky Park"

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By Carolyn See
Friday, September 3, 2010

THREE STATIONS

By Martin Cruz Smith

Simon & Schuster. 243 pp. $25.99

For years, Martin Cruz Smith has written about Russia as a vivid hell on earth: gray, dim, meaningless, inhuman, inscrutable, hideous in almost every way. His hero, in many of these novels, has been Arkady Renko, who works as a police detective, "Senior Investigator of Important Cases." This officer of great integrity (and depression) has suffered through the dizzying injustices of Russia's Kafkaesque justice system. In the old days of the USSR, the system was communism, of course, a brutish totalitarianism that the West regarded as a manifestation of the devil himself. Now, that system has been replaced by a form of capitalism-on-growth-hormones; a world of unscrupulous robber barons at the top and equally unscrupulous cutpurses at the bottom. The old murderous hierarchy has been replaced by a new murderous oligarchy.

As the story opens, Renko has been on the brink of quitting, but a healthy hatred for his boss has led him to tear up his letter of resignation. While his superior fumes, the detective decides to resume his daily tasks, which includes bailing his sidekick, Victor Orlov, out of the drunk tank and then setting to work investigating the death of a young unidentified prostitute they nickname Olga.

Olga had been plying her trade in a part of Moscow that tourist maps name Komsomol Square, but which Russians refer to as Three Stations, an area where three railroad terminals, two Metro lines and 10 lanes of traffic all meet. It's a bizarre circus of "pickpockets, flyboys handing out directions to strip clubs and slot arcades, gangs of street kids looking for the wounded, the slow, the easy mark. Men with vague intentions idled in small groups, beers in hand, watching prostitutes grind by. The women walked with a predatory eye and looked as likely to eat their clients as have sex with them. Drunks were everywhere, but hard to see because they were as gray as the pavement they sprawled on." This is very much like a Chaucerian "field of folk," a cross section of society, but the society is rotten, beyond hope. Nevertheless, Renko and Orlov soldier on. Who killed Olga and why? And why were her limbs arranged in such strange positions?

While Renko searches for her killer, another child prostitute is in serious jeopardy. Young Maya has been traveling on one of the many trains that chug from the hinterlands into Three Stations. Her 3-week-old baby has been snatched by thieves. (In this new Russia, you can't be born a girl without being sold into slavery, or have a baby without it being grabbed from your arms.) Maya -- she's only 15 -- is distraught about her missing infant, of course, but she must be cautious in her movements because she's escaped from a rural house of prostitution and is being chased by two killers who intend to make a grisly example of her.

Once at Three Stations, Maya runs into a homeless boy her own age named Zhenya, whom Renko keeps an eye on. Zhenya is one of dozens of runaways who eke out a living in this place. He offers to help Maya, but she's reluctant to enlist the assistance of Renko, who could lighten her burden considerably if only she trusted him.

There's another drama going on at the top of this awful society. Self-made millionaires swagger about from one night club or charity event to another; more dead girls turn up, their arms and legs arranged in much the same peculiar way. Renko and Orlov trudge through this mystery, each step disclosing another layer of Russian corruption.

Cruz has made his career from all this, and he does it extremely well. But what is the allure in depicting (and reading about) a society that is so screwed up? Perhaps it's because to fail in such a place becomes a moral victory. (Renko drives a bucket of bolts; his dacha is little more than a shack.) Or maybe it's simply because Russia -- the way it allegedly is now -- makes us look good. Whatever it is, we evidently can't get enough of this ongoing story.

See reviews books regularly for The Post.

Sunday in Outlook

-- Tony Blair takes us on the journey of his political life.

-- Bob Dylan plays across America.

-- A British foreign secretary fiddles with the Middle East.

-- Stephen Hawking looks across the multiverse.

-- But higher education flunks out.


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