Hit List: Dan Fesperman on Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star

Weekly Lizard

In this edition of the Hit List, Dan Fesperman discusses what he loves about this Cold War-era thriller—and reveals what it taught him about writing. Fesperman’s latest book, The Double Game, is now available in paperback.

As a writer and as a reader, I am a sucker for atmospherics. My idea of the best possible fictional journey is to be taken deep into a forbidden world, accompanied by interesting characters alert to their surroundings. Drop me off anywhere—a safe house, a war zone, the slums of a benighted city—and I’ll be happy for the duration, as long as you unravel the social dynamics and translate all of the sights, noises and smells.

Martin Cruz Smith did that for me in Polar Star, way back in 1989. As a reader, I was enthralled. As a writer, I never forgot the lesson.

It was his second novel to feature Russian detective Arkady Renko, a mordant fellow with an independent streak operating within a Soviet system that demanded obedience. The first Renko novel, Gorky Park, was a revelation in its own right, with its peek inside life in Soviet Moscow.

But in Polar Star, Smith went far deeper. He penetrated the closed society of a Soviet factory ship afloat on the Bering Sea, where hundreds of workers were employed below decks, gutting and processing fish hauled from arctic waters. Renko, banished to obscurity for his previous misdeeds, is laboring on the “slime line” with all the other seaborne serfs until the body of a crew member turns up in a net with the daily catch. The ship’s captain, aware of Renko’s background, asks him to solve the crime even as the political officer begins pushing for a quick verdict of suicide.

Those ingredients alone would make for a fine read. But Smith gives us further layers of this shipboard world. Among the crew there is even a gang culture with its own bullying pecking order. Add all those knives from the slime line and, well, a man too interested in seeking the truth could end up as gutted as a haddock, especially when his curiosity begins to endanger the crew’s one big perk—a promised stopover for hard-currency shopping at a U.S. outpost in the Aleutian Islands. Given the choice between blue jeans and VCRs or the satisfactory conclusion to a murder case, these workers of the world would rather unite in favor of the shopping spree.

And, so, there you are alongside Renko, breathing the same briny air, wiping sweat from your brow as you slit yet another fish while your toes go numb and mistrust steals into your thoughts. Read this in bed on a muggy summer night, and by the time you fall asleep you’ll be worrying about frostbite. But be forewarned: After this journey, sketchy treatment of exotic locales will no longer be sufficient. Polar Star does that rare thing. It forever raises your standards.