Thriller Thursday: The Siberian Dilemma by Martin Cruz Smith
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Series: Book 9 of Arkady Renko
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 5, 2019)
Length: 288 pages
Normally I wouldn’t just jump into the middle of a series, but I’m trying to vary my reading and felt I was due for a mystery thriller. Enter The Siberian Dilemma by Martin Cruz Smith, the ninth book in a spy series called Arkady Renko which has only been peripherally on my radar. Formerly an investigator for the Soviet Militsiya in Moscow, our eponymous protagonist has taken on various roles since, solving crimes and mysteries all over the world.
In The Siberian Dilemma, Arkady heads into the wilds of the northern Russian province to search for his girlfriend Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who has gone missing. Although Tatiana has been known to go off-grid for weeks at a time while she is on an assignment, Renko grows concerned after her failure to return home on the train. The constant target of death threats, Tatiana may be in danger, especially given the sensitive nature of the story she is doing on Mikhail Kuznetsov, a wealthy and influential oligarch running for president against Vladimir Putin in the upcoming election.
So when Renko is dispatched to Siberia by his superiors to interrogate a prisoner, he decides to use this opportunity to also check on Tatiana and make sure she is safe. On his way there, he meets Rinchin Bolot, a traveler who is fascinated by Renko and wishes to accompany him as his factotum—a sort of sidekick who actually winds up being quite helpful to our protagonist out in a lot of ways, especially when the mission inevitably turns deadly. After Kuznetsov’s business partner and best friend is murdered, Renko fears that others who have gotten close to the presidential candidate may be targeted next—including himself and Tatiana.
As a first timer to this series, the only reason why I braved starting with book nine was because apparently it could be enjoyed as a standalone. For the most part, I think this is true. Martin Cruz Smith does a good job catching readers up, even if you haven’t read any of novels that came before. That said, I’m sure there were a lot of nuances and connections I must have missed, simply from being unfamiliar with the series’ history. For example, there are several side characters who show up, and from their easy rapport with the protagonist it is clear they had major roles to play in the previous books. One of these is Zhenya, Renko’s adopted teenaged son, and of course Tatiana, whose relationship with the main character was only explored lightly because the narrative assumes the reader is aware of how they met and got together.
That said, there was enough thrust behind the mystery which helped new readers like me get hooked and interested in the story. Granted, things got off to a slow start, which I believe was due to a couple of reasons. The first is once again my unfamiliarity with the series, making it difficult to maintain a strong interest in the early chapters which mostly served to catch us up with Renko’s work and the people around him. The second reason has a lot to do with the nature of spy fiction itself. In the tradition of crime and espionage novels, The Siberian Dilemma places a lot of emphasis on the intrigue and suspense behind the games that major political powers play. While there is also plenty of action, most of these edge-of-your-seat moments—the shootouts, ruthless betrayals, and even a harrowing bear attack—don’t come until the second half of the book.
There’s also a muted quality to the author’s style that took a while to get used to. This removed a lot of the tension from the story, and as a result I never felt truly afraid for Renko, even when he experienced all these close calls. However, I was also pleasantly surprised to find a fair bit of humor in the book. Rinchin Bolot was especially a hoot, injecting some much-needed levity in what was otherwise a pretty dark book. The novel’s biggest weakness was perhaps its pacing, which was unstable with a slow and measured beginning while the ending felt rushed. This was very jarring for a newbie like me and sometimes made it harder to stay focused.
Still, overall I was pretty impressed, speaking as a reader coming to this author and series for the first time. It was also a quick read and easy to get into, despite a few minor obstacles and challenges. In addition, I highly enjoyed the Moscow politics and Russian investigator angle, which I don’t often get to see a lot in the mysteries and thrillers I typically read. All told, I definitely wouldn’t mind picking up more of Martin Cruz Smith’s work or reading more Arkady Renko novels.