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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow Detective Fights Crime in Cuba




Poor Arkady Renko. In Havana Bay, Martin Cruz Smith's latest thriller - after "Gorky Park," "Polar Star" and "Red Square" - Arkady, the laconic Moscow crime investigator starring in the book, is still smoking too much, even if it's to ward off the smell of decaying flesh at autopsies.


He has been sent on an unpleasant mission to Havana, Cuba to learn what has become of his old friend Sergei Sergeyevich Pribluda, an attach? to the Russian Embassy who has disappeared. The Cuban police insist that he is the rotten corpse they have found floating in an inner tube that so-called neumaticos use to fish from. But Arkady, with only a steel tooth filling typical of Russian dentistry to go on, isn't so sure. His skepticism annoys the Cubans, who already dislike the Russians for first lording it over their country and then abandoning them.


Put up for the night in a shabby embassy apartment, Arkady falls into despair over the loss of his lover, Irina Asanova, who has died between novels from medical malpractice. "From his jacket he took the sterile syringe he had stolen in the embalming room," Smith writes. "He pushed the coat and shirt sleeves up his left forearm and slapped the inside of the elbow to raise the vein. It would take about a minute after air was introduced into the bloodstream for the heart to stop. Only a minute, not the five minutes Irina was condemned to live out."


As he injects the needle, Rufo, his escort, bangs on the door to sell him a box of cigars. Although Arkady tells him to go away, Rufo rushes in and attacks him with a knife, but misses. "The flapping of Arkady's open coat had misled him. Rufo's other problem was the embalming syringe that stood from his left ear, which meant that sixcentimeters of steel needle was buried in his brain. Arkady had struck back without thinking because the attack had come so fast."


Aroused from his depression by this attack, Arkady is now determined to figure out what has happened to Pribluda, and to get to the bottom of the Cubans' hostility.


As readers of the previous books well know, Smith has been extremely adept at summoning up the seedy, melancholy Russian milieu in which Arkady operates. In "Havana Bay,'' he does something similar for post-Soviet Cuba, where the joke goes that the three accomplishments of the revolution are "health, education and sports," and the three failures are "breakfast, lunch and dinner."


Here Arkady plods through a world where fingerprint powder is made from burned palm fronds, where myriad strains of music pulse in the air, where sex tourism is as alive as ever, where the ghosts of the Soviet era vie with spirits of the mafia past and where men still dream of reviving Cuba as a gambling paradise.


Arkady walked "past boys demanding Chiclets and men offering mulatas, and beyond conversation starters of 'Amigo, que hora es? De que pais? Momentico, amigo.' Overhead hung balconies, arabesques of wrought iron spikes and potted plants, women in housedresses and men stripped to their underwear and cigars, music shifting from window to window. Decay everywhere, heat everywhere, faded colors trying to hold together disintegrating plaster and salt-eaten beams."


Thick as this atmosphere may be, it has a lot to sustain. As Arkady slogs he stumbles across endless clues: a missing cell phone, a hungry turtle, a rag doll named Chango, a huge sugar deal gone awry, a photograph of Pribluda with friends, several additional murders, Pribluda's mysterious errands to Chinatown and the activities of young women known as jineteras, or jockeys.


At times, the plot of "Havana Bay" seems like complication merely for its own sake. At the end, you're still not absolutely clear how Pribluda's death relates to the mess Arkady's in.


Happily, everything that happens is seen through the eyes of Arkady or his Cuban counterpart, Ofelia Osorio, a detective in the Policia Nacional de la Revolucion. The byplay between these two enlivens the dullest of complications. At first they're antagonists; Ofelia is insulted by Arkady's doubts about Cuban investigative techniques. Then gradually she grows to respect his skills and begins to melt toward him despite herself.


"There were times I wished I smoked," Ofelia tells him during one of their conversations. "My mother smokes cigars and watches Mexican telenovelas and shouts to the characters."


"Really?" says Arkady.


"My mother is light-skinned from a family of tobacco growers, and even though she married a black cane cutter, my father, she always maintains the cultural superiority of tobacco workers," Ofelia says, conveying her mother's expression: "'When they roll cigars in the factory, there's someone reading aloud the great stories. 'Madame Bovary,' 'Don Quixote.' You think in the middle of the cane field there's someone reading 'Madame Bovary'?"


They may not be reading "Havana Bay" aloud in the cigar factories, but it's details like the above that make it worthwhile, no matter how glutinous the plot.


"Havana Bay" by Martin Cruz Smith. Random House. 329 pages. $24.95.