Those of us who prize a good literary thriller well above the price of rubies play a game resembling Fantasy Football. In our version we argue as to who are the top five thriller writers, then brood over which is their best book. For myself, the American author Martin Cruz Smith has never moved out of the top five, and his superlative Polar Star (1989), a story of murder and espionage on a Soviet fish-processing ship in the Bering Sea, is the book I most revisit.
‘Why not Gorky Park?’ fellow players often ask me. That was, of course, Cruz Smith’s first, bestselling novel. But his second book, in addition to being very funny, contains writing almost worthy of Conrad himself. He brilliantly evokes the power and terror of the sea and the way it shapes the character of those who work in peril on it. As in Gorky Park the central actor is Arkady Renko, a former Moscow police inspector, a good man in a difficult place. But Polar Star is not a sequel. It’s another magnificent stand-alone thriller.
The actual Polar Star is a vast, battered factory ship of the Soviet Far Eastern Fleet, ploughing its way from Siberia to Alaska, pro-cessing fish caught by four attendant American trawlers. But in crime-fiction terms it’s a classic set-up: a closed community with discomfort and unease running at peak levels for four months at a time. Many of its crew are either on the run or, in Soviet speak, ‘politically unreliable’. Renko is both.
In Gorky Park Renko was trying to prevent the illegal export of live Russian sables. It ended badly – he foiled the plot but en route killed the Public Prosecutor and then set the animals free. For three years he’s been hiding in Siberia. Its immense landmass and paralysing January temperature of minus 25 degrees means that even the Moscow police have (temporarily) lost interest in Renko. But a wise man keeps changing jobs. Renko’s latest employment is on the s
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