Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith


Rating: (Recommended)




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The Russian Columbo, Arkady Renko, returns in Martin Cruz Smith’s latest novel, Wolves Eat Dogs, the fifth installment in the Renko series. Both Russia and Arkady are the same and different, as both continue to face change. More than ever, Renko seems out of place in post-Soviet Russia. Smith’s description of the zone around Chernobyl comes alive for readers, and Renko’s time in the zone is packed with suspense.


Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 7, pp. 134-144, including a reference to the book’s title:


Alex carried the rifle, and Arkady carried a cage that had a one-way gate baited with greens. Step by step, the woods around them changed from stunted trees to taller, sturdier beeches and oaks that produced a dappling of birdcalls and light.

Arkady asked, “Did you ever met Pasha Ivanov or Nikolai Timofeyev?”

“You know, Renko, some people leave their problems behind them when they go into the woods. They commune with nature. No, I never met either man.”

“You were a physicist. You all went to the Institute of Extremely High Temperatures.”

“They were older, ahead of me. Why this focus on physicists?”

“This case is more interesting than the usual domestic quarrel. Cesium chloride is not a carving knife.”

“You can get cesium chloride at a number of labs. Considering the economic health of the country, you can probably persuade a scientist to siphon off a little extra for either terrorism or murder. People steal warheads, don’t they?”

“To transport cesium chloride would take professional skill, wouldn’t it?”

“Any decent technician could do that. The power plant still em­ploys hundreds of technicians for maintenance. Far too many for you to question.”

“If the person who used cesium in Moscow is the same person who killed Timofeyev here, wouldn’t that narrow the field?”

“To those hundreds of technicians.”

“Not really. The technicians live an hour away. They commute by train to the plant, work their shift and go directly home. They don’t wander around the Zone. No, the person who cut Timofeyev’s throat is part of the security staff, or a squatter or poacher.”

“Or a scientist living in the Zone?” Alex said.

“That’s a possibility, too.” There weren’t many of those, Arkady thought. There was no scientific glory work being done at Cher­nobyl. Everything was cleanup or observation.

“Cesium is a complicated way to kill someone or drive them crazy.

“I agree,” said Arkady. “And hardly worth the effort, unless you’re sending a message. The fact that neither Ivanov nor Timo­feyev complained to the militia or their own security, in spite of a threat to their lives, suggests that some sort of message was under­stood.”

Timofeyev had his throat cut. Where’s the subtle message in that?”

“Maybe it was in where he was found—at the threshold of a vil­lage cemetery~ Either he drove all the way from Moscow just to go to that graveyard, or someone went to a great deal of trouble to put him there. Who noticed his throat was cut?”

“I suppose someone who went into the freezer. I can tell you that people were very unhappy there was a body inside. They had to clean everything else out.”

“Then why go into the freezer except to look at the body?”

Renko, I had never appreciated before how much detection work was groundless speculation.”

“Well, now you know.”

Trees continued to grow taller, shadows deeper, roots more an­cient and interlaced. Arkady waded through fronds of bracken and had the illusion of spiders, salamanders, snakes scurrying ahead, a subtle ripple of life. Finally Alex stopped Arkady at the edge of blinding light, an arching meadow of wide-open daisies and, here and there, the red flags of poppies. Alex motioned him to crouch and be quiet, then pointed to the top of the meadow, where two deer stared back with dark liquid eyes. Arkady had never been so close to deer in the wild. One was a doe; the other had a wide rack of antlers, a hunter’s prize. The tension in their gaze was different from the placid observation of zoo deer.

Alex whispered, “They are fat from grazing at the orchards.”

“Are we still in the Zone?” Arkady found it hard to believe.

“Yes. What you can see from the road is a horror show—Pripyat, the buried villages, the red woods—but much of the Zone is like this. Now slowly stand.”

Both deer went still as Arkady rose. They balanced more partic­ularly but held their ground.

Alex said, “Like the hedgehog, they’re losing their fear.”

“Are they radioactive?”

“Of course they’re radioactive, everything here is. Everything on earth is. This field is about as radioactive as a beach in Rio. There’s a lot of sun in Rio. That’s why I wanted you to turn off your Geiger counter, so you would hear more than that little ticking. Use your eyes and ears. What do you hear?”

For a minute Arkady heard nothing more than the mass drone of field life or his hand slapping a bug on his neck. By concentrating on the deer, however, he started to pick up their thoughtful chew­ing, the individual transit of dragonflies amid a sunlit cross fire of insects, and in the background, a squirrel scolding from a tree.

Alex said, “The Zone has deer, bison, eagles, swans. The Cher­nobyl Zone of Exclusion is the best wild-animal refuge in Europe because the towns and villages have been abandoned, fields aban­doned, roads abandoned. Because normal human activity is worse for nature than the greatest nuclear accident in history. The next greenie I meet who tells me how he wants to save the animals, I’ll tell him that if he’s sincere, he should hope for nuclear accidents everywhere. And the next poacher I find here, I will do more than break his toy crossbow. If you do find any poachers, will you please tell them that? Don’t move. Be absolutely still. Look over your left shoulder, between the two pretty birches.”

Arkady turned his head as slowly as possible and saw a row of yellow eyes behind the trees. The air grew heavy~ Insects slowed in their spirals. Sweat ringed Arkady’s neck and ran down his chest and spine. The next moment the deer bolted in an explosion of dust and flower heads, took the measure of the field in two bounds and crashed into the woods on the far side. Arkady looked back at the birches. The wolves had gone so silently that he thought he might have imagined them.

Alex unslung his rifle and ran to the birches. From a lower branch, he freed a tuft of gray fur that he carefully placed inside a plastic bag. When he had put the bag in a pocket and given the pocket a loving pat, he tore a strip of bark off the birch, placed the strip between his palms and blew a long, piercing whistle. “Yes!” he said. “Life is good!”



Eva Kazka had set up a card table and folding chairs in the middle of the village’s only paved road. Her white coat said she was a doctor; otherwise, her manner suggested a weary mechanic, and she didn’t tame her black hair back as much as subdue it.

On either side of this outdoor office, the village slumped in res­ignation. Window trim hung loose around broken panes, the memory of blue and green walls faded under the black advance of mildew. The yards were full of bikes, sawhorses and tubs pillowed in tall grass and bordered by picket fences that leaned in an infinitely siow collapse. All the same, set farther back from the main street were, here and there, repainted houses with windows and intricate trim intact, with a haze of wood smoke around the chimney and a goat cropping the yard.

A benchful of elderly women in versions of shawl-and-coat-and-rubber-boots waited while Eva looked down the throat of a round little woman with steel teeth.

“Alex Gerasimov is crazy, this is a well-known fact,” Eva said as an aside to Arkady. “Him and his precious nature. He’s a perfec­tionist. He is a man who would drive a car into a pole again and again until it was a perfect wreck. Close.”

The old woman closed her jaw firmly to signify nothing less then complete cooperation. Arkady doubted that, from the shawl tied tight around her head to her boots hanging clear of the ground, she was over a meter and a half tall. Her eyes were bright and daz­zling, a true Ukrainian blue.

“Maria Fedorovna, you have the blood pressure and heart rate of a woman twenty years younger. However, I am concerned about the polyp in your throat. I would like to take it out.”

“I will discuss it with Roman.”

“Yes, where is Roman Romanovich? I expected to see your hus­band, too.”

Maria lifted her eyes to the top of the lane, where a gate swung open for a bent man in a cap and sweater, leading a black-and-white cow by a rope. Arkady didn’t know which looked more ex­hausted.

“He’s airing the cow,” Maria said.

The cow trudged dutifully behind. A milk cow was an asset pre­cious enough to be displayed for visitors, Arkady thought. All at­tention was fixed on the animal’s plodding circuit up and down the street. Its hooves made a sucking sound in the wet earth.

Eva’s fingers played with a scarf tucked into the collar of her lab coat. She wasn’t pretty in an orthodox way; the contrast of such white skin and black hair was too exotic and her eyes had, at least for Arkady, an unforgiving gaze.

“There’s no house here you could use for more privacy?” Arkady asked.

“Privacy? This is their entertainment, their television, and this way they can all discuss their medical problems like experts. These people are in their seventies and eighties. I’m not going to operate on them except for something like a broken leg. The state doesn’t have the money, instruments or clean blood to waste on people their age. I’m not even supposed to be making calls, and Maria would never go to a city, for fear they wouldn’t let her return here.”

Arkady said, “She’s not supposed to be here anyway. This is the Zone.”

Eva turned toward the ladies on the bench. “Only someone from Moscow could say something as stupid as that.” To judge by their expressions, they seemed to agree. “The state turns a blind eye to the return of old people. It has given up trying to stop them,” Eva informed Arkady. “It has also stopped sending doctors to see them. It demands they go to a clinic.”

Maria said, “At our age, you go into the hospital, you don’t come out.

Eva asked Arkady, “You’ve seen those television shows with the bathing beauties dropped off on a tropical island to see if they can survive?” She nodded to Maria and to her friends on the bench. “These are the real survivors.

The doctor introduced them: Olga had a corrugated face and filmy glasses; Nina leaned on a crutch; Kiara had the angular fea­tures of a Viking, braids and all. Their leader was Maria.

“An investigator of what?” Maria asked.

Arkady said, “A body of a man was found at the entrance of your village cemetery in the middle of May. I was hoping that one of you might have seen or heard someone, or noticed something odd or maybe a car.”

“May was rainy,” Maria said.

“Was it at night?” Olga asked. “If it was at night and it was rain­ing, who would even go outside?”

“Do any of you have dogs?”

“No dogs,” Kiara said.

“Wolves eat dogs,” said Nina.

“So I hear. Do you know a family called Katamay? The son was in the militia here.”

The women shook their heads.

“Is the name Timofeyev familiar to you?” Arkady asked.

“I don’t believe you,” Eva said. “You act like a real detective, like you’re in Moscow. This is a black village, and the people here are ghosts. Someone from Moscow died here? Good riddance. We owe Moscow nothing, they’ve done nothing for us.”

“Is the name Pasha Ivanov familiar to you?” Arkady asked the women.

Eva said, “You’re worse than Alex. He values animals above peo­ple, but you’re worse. You’re just a bureaucrat with a list of ques­tions. These women have had their whole world taken away. Their children and grandchildren are allowed to visit one day a year. The Russians promised money, medicine, doctors. What do we get? Alex Gerasimov and you. At least he’s doing research. Why did Moscow send you?”

“To get rid of me.”

“I can see why. And what have you found?”

“Not much.”

“How can that be? The death rate here is twice normal. How many people died from the accident? Some say eighty, some say eight thousand, some say half a million. Did you know that the can­cer rate around Chornobyl is sixty-five times normal? Oh, you don’t want to hear this. This is so tedious and depressing.”

Was he in a staring contest with her? This had to be like a fal­coner’s dilemma, holding a not completely trained bird of prey on the wrist.

“I did want to ask you a few questions, maybe someplace else.”

“No, Maria and the other women can use a little amusement. We will all concentrate on one Russian stiff.” Eva opened a pack of cigarettes and shared them with her patients. “Go on.”

“You do have drugs?” Arkady asked.

“Yes, we do have some medicine, not much, but some.”

“Some has to be refrigerated?”


“And some frozen?”

“One or two.”


Eva Kazka took a deep draw on her cigarette. “In a freezer, obvi­ously.”

“Do you have one, or do you use the freezer at the cafeteria?”

“I have to admit, you have a single-mindedness that must be very useful in your profession.”

“Do you store medicine in the cafeteria freezer?”


“You saw the body in the freezer?”

“I see a lot of bodies. We have more deaths than live births. Why not ask about that?”

“You saw the body of LevTimofeyev.”

“What if I did? I certainly didn’t know who he was.”

“And you left a note that he hadn’t died of a heart attack.”

Maria and the women on the bench looked to Eva, Arkady and back as if a tennis match had come to the village. Olga removed her glasses and wiped them. “Details.”

Eva said, “There was a body dressed in a suit and wrapped in plastic. I’d never seen him before. That’s all.”

“People told you that he had had a heart attack?”

“I don’t remember.”

Arkady said nothing. Sometimes it was better to wait, especially with such an eager audience as Maria and her friends.

“I suppose the kitchen staff said he had a heart attack,” Eva said.

“Who signed the death certificate?”

“Nobody. No one knew who he was or how he died or how long he had been dead.”

“But you’re fairly expert in that. I hear you spent time in Chech­nya. That’s unusual for a Ukrainian doctor, to serve with the Rus­sian army on the battlefront.”

Eva’s eyes lit. “You have it backward. I was with a group of doctors documenting Russian atrocities against the Chechen population.

“Like slit throats?”

“Exactly. The body in the freezer had its throat cut with one stroke of a long sharp knife from behind. From the angle of the cut, his head was pulled back, and he was kneeling or seated, or the killer was at least two meters tall. Since his windpipe was cut, he couldn’t have uttered a sound before dying, and if he was killed at the ceme­tery here, no one would have heard a thing.”

“The description said he had been ‘disturbed by wolves.’ Mean­ing his face?”

“It happens. It’s the Zone. Anyway, I do not want to be involved in your investigation.”

“So he was lying on his back?”

“I don’t know.”

“Wouldn’t someone whose throat was cut from behind be more likely to fall forward?”

“I suppose so. All I saw was the body in the freezer. This is like talking to a monomaniac. All you can focus on in this enormous tragedy, where hundreds of thousands died and continue to suffer, is one dead Russian.”

The old man turned the cow in the direction of the card table. Despite the heat, Roman Romanovich was buttoned into not one but two sweaters. His pink, well-fed face and white bristles and the anxious smile he cast at Maria as he approached suggested a man who had long ago learned that a good wife was worth obeying.

Eva asked Arkady, “Do you know how Russia resolved the cri­sis of radioactive milk after the accident? They mixed radioactive milk with clean milk. Then they raised the permissible level of radioactivity in milk to the norm of nuclear waste and in this way saved the state nearly two billion rubles. Wasn’t that clever?”

Roman tugged on Arkady’s sleeve. “Milk?”

“He wants to know if you would like to buy some milk,” Eva said. She twisted her scarf with her fingers. “Would you like some milk from Roman’s cow?”

“This cow?”

“Yes. Absolutely fresh.”

“After you.”

Eva smiled. To Roman she said, “Investigator Renko thanks you but must decline. He’s allergic to milk.”

“Thank you,” Arkady said.

“Think nothing of it,” said Eva.

“He must come to dinner,” Maria said. “We’ll give him decent food, not like they serve at the cafeteria. He seems a nice man.”

“No, I’m afraid the investigator is going back to Moscow soon. Maybe they’ll send medicine or money in his place, something use­ful. Maybe they’ll surprise us.”


Life in the zone and life for Arkady remains touch and go throughout Wolves Eat Dogs. Readers can count on Arkady to patiently place one foot in front of the other, and pose one question after another, and observe one thing after another as he patiently figures out what has happened. Enjoy the pleasure of quickly turning all 350 pages of Wolves Eat Dogs.


Steve Hopkins, January 25, 2005



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