Arkady Renko might be my most favorite fictional detective. Equal parts morose, guilt-ridden persistence and quietly brilliant intuition, his disinterested “<bleep> you” attitude towards anyone in his way always seems to land him in trouble — with his superiors, his enemies, and often his lovers. Martin Cruz Smith’s prose has a convincing way of communicating Arkady’s intuition, in a way that you are convinced Arkady is smarter than you are.
Arkady made his first appearance in Gorky Park, first the book and then the movie. During a recent trip to Pinehurst, NC, I recently discovered that I had missed one of the earlier books in the series, Havana Bay, and scooped it up from Given Books.
When the corpse of a Russian is hauled from the oily waters of Havana Bay, Arkady Renko comes to Cuba to identify the body. Looking for the killer, he discovers a city of faded loneliness, unexpected danger, and bewildering contradictions.
Arkady is sent to Cuba to investigate the apparent death of his friend Pribluda, and he’s at the harbor to identify a body, presumably Pribluda’s. This is the era when Russia had stopped funding Cuba, and Russians aren’t so welcome there, especially when they are prying. Detective Ofelio Osorio is the female detective working on the case. “A dead Russian, a live Russian, what’s the difference?”, she spits out, mirroring the attitudes of most Cubans of the time towards Russians. Arkady and his creator Martin Cruz Smith both have that wonderful black humor shared by soldiers and policeman.
Osorio was a small brown woman in PNR Blue; she gave Arkady a studied glare. A Cuban named Rufo was the interpreter from the Russian embassy. “It’s very simple,” he translated the captain’s words. “You see the body, identify the body and then go home.”
… The diver stepped in a hole and went under. Gasping, he came up out of the water, grabbed onto first the inner tube and then a foot hanging from it. The foot came off. The inner tube pressed against the spear of a mattress spring, popped and started to deflate. As the foot turned to jelly, Detective Osorio shouted for the officer to toss it to shore: a classic confrontation between authority and vulgar death, Arkady thought. All along the tape, onlookers clapped and laughed.
Rufo, said, “See, usually our level of competence is fairly high, but Russians have this effect. The captain will never forgive you.”
The camera went on taping the debacle while another detective jumped in the water. Arkady hoped the lens captured the way the rising sun poured into the windows of the ferry. The inner tube was sinking. An arm disengaged. Shouts flew flew back and forth between Osorio and the police boat. The more desperately the men in the water tried to save the situation the worse it became. Captain Arcos contributed orders to lift the body. As the diver steadied the head, the pressure in his hands liquefied the face and made it slide like a grape skin off the skull, which itself separated cleanly from the neck; it was like trying to lift a man was perversely disrobing part by part, unembarrassed by the stench of advanced decomposition. A pelican sailed overhead, red as a flamingo.
“I think identification is going to be a little more complicated than the captain imagined,” Arkady said.
Ofelio is tough as nails, but has a soft spot for her children and the aggressive banter between her and her mother is priceless. After denying she’s attracted to Renko, he kills someone attacking him, and she gets the call.
Her mother maintained an expression of innocence until Ofelia hung up.
“What is it?”
“It’s about the Russian”, Ofelia said. “He’s killed someone.”
“Ah, you were meant for each other.”
Needless to say, Arkady doesn’t have any trouble making enemies quickly. Fidel Castro makes an appearance, and as usual, Arkady tries to figure things out. Havana Bay captures the beauty of Havana, the fading glory of the architecture, the sex for sale, and the curious mix of religions, from Catholicism to Santeria to Voodoo to Abakua. The humor is persistently black.
And what exactly could a neumático (an inner tube riding fisherman) do while his friend was being eaten by a shark?
Erasmo let his eyebrows rise. “Well, we have a lot of religions in Cuba to choose from”.
Havana Bay is relentlessly funny in a mordant way, occasionally poignant, and a very intriguing mystery. Very much worth a read as the landscape in Cuba shifts.