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On the Slime Line

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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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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 slime line of the Polar Star. And it’s an occupation quite as awful as it sounds. On the slime line you end every shift with a face – skin, eyelashes, eyebrows – coated in a fine mist of blood, fish scales and fish guts. Renko and his cohorts work in pairs on either side of a conveyor belt of fish, sawing, gutting, beheading and filleting. If you’re lucky you end your shift only frozen and numb. If you’re unlucky, the saws can remove fingers as well. Someone with a strong stomach then has to search through the discarded fish heads for the missing digit so it can be sewn on again. In this frozen hell Renko should have been safe. That is until, in the novel’s amazingly visceral opening scene, a trawl net crammed with fish reveals another, more sinister catch. ‘Like a beast, the net came streaming up the ramp on to the trawl deck, water hissing from the net’s plastic hair. Smaller fish fell free. Starfish dropped like stones.’ Manoeuvring this colossal load with an almost balletic skill is the trawl master, Karp Korobetz, the Polar Star’s model employee, a barrel-chested, gold-toothed, heavily tat­tooed monolith, the Soviet worker at his most puissant. But Korobetz spots something that shouldn’t be in the net and slices it open. ‘Out of the net spilled a flood of silver pollock, a whole school dredged up like silver coins. And a girl. She slid with them, loose limbed like a swimmer, as the fish poured from the net.’ It is Zina Patiashvelli, a worker on the Polar Star, who formerly served food in the workers’ mess. Faced with this terrifying irregularity, the ship’s political officer, Volovoi, a humourless jobsworth, can’t believe his luck that there is a Moscow policeman on the slime line. Renko can’t believe his bad luck at being that policeman. Volovoi is anxious that Renko should ‘investigate’ Zina’s death, in other words tidy it away. How about food poisoning? She worked in the galley, after all. Unfortunately, after a very rudimentary examination, Renko dis­covers Zina died of a blow to the head. She was thrown overboard, with a knife wound to the stomach to make sure she sank to the sea floor, where her corpse was colonized by slime eels. Don’t ask about the slime eels. Then, a day later and against all the odds, the trawl net swept her up with the fish and back on to the Polar Star. Keen-eyed readers will already be wondering why, at the height of the Soviet era, Russian and American boats are working together. The answer is of course perestroika, or ‘thinking in new ways’, Gorba-chev’s desperate last-ditch attempt at modernizing the ailing Soviet economy. America supplies the trawlers and keeps the money from the catch. Russia keeps the fish. But the presence of the Americans, as Renko gradually discovers, has created other possibilities – includ­ing smuggling and defection. A bogus explanation for Zina’s death is hastily cobbled together but Renko, to his own surprise, refuses to sign it off. For three years he’s lived a life without any goal but survival. Against all the odds, Zina’s body was resurrected from the sea. Is some kind of resurrection possible for him too? An exasperated captain gives him two days to try to find the real killer. The characters who people this book are vividly drawn, none more touchingly than the assistant Renko choses from the slime line to help him solve Zina’s murder. Transparently honest, immensely dig­nified and an inveterate reader of a field of literature known as ‘tractor romances’, Natasha Chaikovskaya is described as a woman with the soul of Carmen trapped inside the body of a Soviet shot-putter. But he chooses well – twice she saves Renko’s life, and she helps him to untangle the threads that led to Zina’s death. Part of my deep admiration for Cruz Smith is informed by know-ledge of his long journeyman apprenticeship as a writer. Bill Smith, as he is known in his family, had written nineteen books under eight pseudonyms – spy stories, Westerns, science fiction plus tales of a gypsy art dealer – before he hit gold with Gorky Park. Not that that book’s genesis was remotely straightforward. The publishers wanted a story about an American cop who goes to Moscow to solve a crime. Smith agreed, then found that Arkady Renko, a Moscow detective, strode out of his subconscious and insisted on taking centre stage. The New York cop was consigned to a minor role. The book was duly written but not liked. Over the next eight years, the publishers kept asking: why isn’t the American the hero? They wouldn’t publish it but they wouldn’t let him buy it back either. What gave that refusal scene its special piquancy was that his editor, during the interview, actually cut his own toenails, having removed his shoes and socks shortly after Cruz Smith arrived. Then a new management with better hygiene habits took over and agreed to let him buy it back. Whereupon Cruz Smith sold it, almost immediately, for a million dollars. Truly a story to gladden the heart. But what I love most about Martin Cruz Smith is clearly illustrated by his reflection about that enforced standoff. Far from being bitter, he commented: ‘That long hiatus of writing and rewriting that book did me a huge favor. I had always had something to say, but by the time I actually finished it, I was better equipped to say it.’ A typically gen­erous summing up by a wonderfully gifted and generous writer.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 72 © Frances Donnelly 2021


About the contributor

Frances Donnelly lives on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, and is still in search of a rescue dog. Ideally small, easy-going with GSOH essential.

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