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Stop at 'Three Stations' for another good Renko mystery

The “Gorky Park” series gave Martin Cruz Smith the “overnight success” label that's reserved for those who have been toiling in his field for years. “Gorky Park,” which the author sold for $1 million in 1981, was called by Time magazine the “thriller of the ’80s,” and was made into a successful movie two years later.

Smith will discuss and sign his new novel, “Three Stations,” at St. Louis County Library Headquarters on Sept. 13. This is the latest in the heralded series of seven murder mysteries that feature Senior Investigator Arkady Renko of Moscow.

In “Three Stations,” the veteran Renko, a hopeless iconoclast uncorrupted amid the wild excesses of newly capitalist Russia, is in deep official trouble yet again while trying to solve a suspicious homicide that no one else wants investigated, least of all by him. 

The story takes place at Moscow’s Three Stations, a railroad hub that is a kind of elaborate cross between Grand Central Station in New York, Piccadilly Circus in England, and some of the circles of Hell in Dante’s “Commedia.” All forms of inhumanity seem to arrive at Three Stations, sooner or later, providing author Cruz Smith with a vast range of specimens to consider and providing Renko with a triple-twined problem to solve.

At first, he is only trying to explain the death of an apparent prostitute, but she looks too pretty, too healthy and unmarred, is found much too conveniently and rather theatrically “displayed” — and soon the homicide intersects with the disappearance of the three-week-old baby of an actual prostitute named Maya, who is only 15, but she is one fierce mother.

Meanwhile, Renko’s personal life begins to connect with the crimes he is investigating. Renko watches over a surly teenage boy, whom he has not quite adopted. They have a special relationship: The boy’s father once shot Renko. The detective also gets romantically involved with a fearless and beautiful reporter who has ties to a super-rich businessman closely involved with key events on the night of the initial murder.

All manner of social commentary is soon available as a long list of interesting characters arrive to complicate the scene: professional killers, teenage runaways, crooked cops, eccentric billionaires, ethnic Tajiks, aged divas and so on. Late in the story, more surprises arrive, making Smith’s novel a smooth, suspenseful and elegant murder mystery that feels exotic and realistic, ribald and delicate, all at the same time.

Renko’s adventures, mostly in Soviet-era Russia, have taken him to Cuba, Chernobyl, and back to the new Russia under Vladimir Putin. Cruz Smith’s other books have ranged in topic from American Indian life (His mother was a Pueblo Indian.) to a historical novel set in Victorian England to a book on the making of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos.

Cruz Smith has twice won the Hammett Prize from the International Association of Crime Writers and has also won a Gold Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers’ Association.  An American novelist born in Pennsylvania in 1942, Martin Cruz Smith has written more than two dozen titles under a half-dozen names. He took the middle name “Cruz” (from his paternal grandmother) early in his writing career to differentiate him from other authors named Martin Smith. He lives in California.

The event is sponsored by the St. Louis County Library Foundation and will be held at St. Louis County Library headquarters at 1640 S. Lindbergh. The program -- which is free and open to the public -- will begin at 7 p.m. Books will be available for purchase.

Nick Otten is a freelance writer who has been a regular contributor to the Beacon on books and movies. (To see, Nick's List, click here.)

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.