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November 2 2019
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A scene from Gorky Park, the 1983 film featuring Soviet detective Arkady Renko.

The Siberian Dilemma by Martin Cruz Smith

This fall sees the return of two of the longest-running, most loved detectives in contemporary crime fiction—Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko. Though Bosch has been a steady presence, we’ve had to wait awhile for the Moscow investigator introduced in Gorky Park 38 years ago and who last appeared in 2013’s Tatiana. Smith was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1995, which created major obstacles—even the act of typing was a trial. With medical intervention, determination, and the help of his wife, he’s been able to produce novels, though at a slower pace than before.

But the excellent series hasn’t suffered; Smith’s characterization of Renko and his grasp of the constantly changing nature of the “new” Russia are as sharp as ever. Which may just be the old Soviet Union except with more oil, yachts, soccer teams, and bling, but Smith examines it through the wry, world-weary perspective of Renko, whose job as investigator of special cases for the prosecutor’s office always seems to be balanced on the razor’s edge.

Martin Cruz Smith’s characterization and grasp of the constantly changing nature of the “new” Russia are as sharp as ever.

In The Siberian Dilemma, his boss-slash-nemesis, Zurin, always eager to increase Renko’s misery quotient, orders him to Siberia to apprehend and convict a young Chechen suspected of terrorism. This is an odious task for Renko, who actually cares about things such as the presumption of innocence, and, well, it’s not exactly a garden spot. But Renko’s journalist girlfriend, Tatiana, went AWOL there while working on an investigative piece, so he heads off to Irkutsk, once “the Paris of Siberia,” now the flashy part-time domain of oligarchs like Mikhail Kuznetsov, a Putin challenger who is the subject of Tatiana’s article, and his friendly rival, Boris Benz.

At first things go well there—Renko frees the innocent young Chechen instead of convicting him—but once he finds Tatiana and gets caught up in the shadowy machinations of Benz and Kuznetsov, the situation goes dangerously awry. Bears, both real and symbolic, are a major motif in this book, as is the lethal cold, which serves as inspiration for its title. The Siberian dilemma? It leaves you with no hope, just a braver way to die.

The Night Fire by Michael Connelly
Titus Welliver (left) plays Detective Harry Bosch in the TV series adapted from Michael Connelly’s Bosch novels.

Meanwhile, Harry Bosch is now retired, pushing 70, and handling a diagnosis of chronic myeloid leukemia (treatable) and a recently replaced knee with customary stoicism. But his creator, Michael Connelly, hasn’t missed a step with the latest Bosch novel, The Night Fire. Actually, it’s a Renée Ballard–Harry Bosch production, as Connelly has brought back Bosch’s unofficial partner to keep the action energetic and add a fresh perspective. Ballard lives on the beach—literally, in a tent with her pit-bull mix—and works the midnight shift at the L.A.P.D.’s Hollywood station thanks to the deep-seated departmental sexism that has made her a bit of a pariah. She’s tough and damaged, and she and Bosch share an inclination to color outside the lines in the pursuit of justice.

They team up again to look into an old case involving a young man executed in his car in an alley, presumably the result of a drug deal gone wrong. The murder was handled by Bosch’s late mentor, whose widow thinks her husband might have had a personal connection to it and asks Bosch to investigate. Ballard’s busy with a “crispy critter” case—a homeless man who’s been torched to death in an encampment—but she’s intrigued by what she sees in the old murder book and plunges in, at some risk to her already tenuous status within the department.

There are many strands, past and present, to these cases, which Connelly knits together with the skill and scrupulous level of L.A.P.D. procedural detail we’ve come to expect from him. The prose remains plain and functional, which works just fine. After writing 22 Bosch novels (not to mention the Lincoln Lawyer books) and serving as executive producer on the successful Amazon series, Connelly could be forgiven for easing up a bit, but the rigor he brings to this complicated novel is impressive, as is his social awareness, addressing all manner of modern scourges and developments fluently and nimbly. The Night Fire is the work of a writer holding steady at the peak of his powers.

Strangers at the Gate by Catriona McPherson

If something seems too good to be true—a partner position at a law firm, let’s say, and a house that goes with it—it probably is. And if those enticements are offered by the owner of an especially forbidding country home in Scotland called Widdershins, a polite “No, thank you” might be the correct response. But Paddy Lamb convinces his wife, Finn, that they’ve won life’s lottery, and away they drive from Edinburgh into the gloom. No sooner do they leave their first dinner party at Widdershins, hosted by Tuft and Lovatt Dudgeon (is it too late for a funny-name alert?), than Finn, returning to retrieve her bag, finds the couple stabbed to death on the kitchen floor. Not the best welcome for the young lawyer and his church-deacon wife, who is our rather spiky narrator. All Finn’s fears about moving to “the arse end of nowhere” come true immediately in Catriona McPherson’s Strangers at the Gate, which is a little sad for the reader because the Dudgeons are a hoot.

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

But there’s plenty of repressed Scottish crazy to go around in the claustrophobic village of Simmerton, where Finn is left to sort out the baffling complexities of whatever it is that’s happened to the Dudgeons. (She can’t report their deaths to the police because both she and her husband have blots on their records.) Migraine-prone Paddy is suspiciously useless in this pursuit, and their neighbor Shannon, whose albinism makes her a strikingly witchy figure, is suspiciously useful.

Though at first Finn seems too judgmental and cranky to have believably answered the call of the church, her prickliness soon subsides and her wit and emotional intelligence take over. McPherson has some tart fun with the ominous country-estate business—she pokes at the suspense without puncturing it—and is a demon plotter. You may have to re-read the last couple of chapters to see clearly through a clever smoke screen of tales about switched babies, mysterious parentage, and inheritances only to learn that, in the end, the simplest explanation is generally the right one.

Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for Air Mail. She lives in New York City

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