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.
The Siberian Dilemma by Martin Cruz Smith
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
Author Information: Website | Twitter
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.
I feel like I might have a Martin Cruz Smith book somewhere in my house, but I’m not sure. This isn’t a genre I enjoy that much but I’m glad it wasn’t a horrible experience for you!
His Arkady Renko books have been around for quite a while, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you do own one!
This author and this series are not unknown to me because I’m sure I’ve seen these books displayed in bookstores every time I browsed through the shelves, but I never read any of them. Now that you have piqued my curiosity I will certainly give the series a try, if nothing else for the kind of background which promises to be different from what’s usually offered in the genre. Thanks for sharing! 🙂
Yeah, apparently he’s a pretty big name in crime/spy fiction, but it was the first I’ve heard of him and this serie!
Great review, Mogsy. Way back when I remember watching and very much enjoying the movie Gorky Park. I now have a copy of the book that I’ve been meaning to read. I’d seen the cover for The Siberian Dilemma but never made the connection back to Gorky Park, the first book in the series. I can’t say I’ll pick this one up next, but it does reinforce my desire to read Gorky Park (then perhaps move on to this book or another in the series).
I didn’t even know Gorky Park was made into a movie! I didn’t make the connection to this series either, until I had to look up the book list for my review 😛
I know I had slightly similar issues when I accidentally read the third book in a series recently. I felt that it worked as a standalone but I’d have connected with the characters, and got attached sooner, if I’d realized there were two book before. It’s a shame About the pacing issues here too. A great review like always though 😊
Some series have books that work well as standalones, I find that in the mystery/crime/thriller genre that’s usually the case – I confess it’s why I took a chance on this one 🙂
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I think I had my eye on one of his books at one time
When I saw book 9 I thought “wow, how have I missed all of these?”. I think it’s much easier to jump into the middle of thriller series. It’s usually just relationship stuff that you have to catch up on.
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I think not truly feeling scared for the main character is one of the pitfalls of long series – of course you could have a surprise and the MC could die and the series end – but that’s no a frequent occurrence. Glad that you had a good time with this one jumping in at No.9.