IT’S been seven years since we last spoke, time enough for a complete cellular renewal. Then the American novelist Martin Cruz Smith was touring his Arkady Renko title Red Square, and I remember a gracious, lithe man with liquid brown eyes and a whimsical bent who liked to laugh, was serious about what he did and clearly enjoyed life. He, of course, remembers me not at all.
What he does remember is “eating and drinking so-o-o well in Australia. And,” he cackles, “that koalas are not the cuddly critters of legend but the tightest ball of muscle in the universe.” Since that visit, he's "had a yearning to set a book in Australia – trouble is, I haven’t found the right idea. I had half an idea and that’s worse than none: with a half idea you get started and a year in realise you know nothing. But my brother-in-law has been filming in New Zealand and I’m working on that as an excuse to take the family down to your part of the world.”
A long-term resident of Mill Valley, north of San Francisco, he shares a “more spacious since the two girls married” four-bedroom home “one-third the way up a mountain” with his wife Emily and 17-year-old son. At 56 and having just released Havana Bay (Macmillan, $25, 433pp), his fourth Renko, he’s “on the fine-line of experience now, what can I tell you, I’m looking forward to that getting of wisdom. I’m also at the stage where when you’re trying to make yourself presentable, you look in the mirror and say, to hell with it, this is as good as it’s going to get today.”
Nevertheless, he still jogs several kilometres on the fire trails near his home, if “not as often, as far or as fast as I used to. And I’m a worse movie junkie than ever. I go to at least three a week – it’s amazing the garbage I’ll put up with. Just tonight I saw Wild Wild West,” he pssshws in disgust. “Definitely better off to have watched the grass grow, which I love anyway.”
And while he admits he’s an “unrecovered workaholic” who spends weeks at a time delving in library archives, Bill Smith as he’s known at home is equally keen on “sitting around with friends, to ‘not work’ with people who love to talk and drink.”
It’s 10pm on a Friday in California when I call, and he’s “feeling terrific. Because I am on the verge of throwing myself completely into what will be two years’ work on a new book (a non-Renko set in pre-war Japan), I took today off and drove down to the wine-growing valleys to enjoy the lavender-filled fields there, which were drowning with bees, and had just a tipple to justify the trip. It was 85F and a beautiful sultry day, the kinda day makes you glad to be alive.”
Despite his standing as a periodic Mr Big of crime fiction, he is, he says, only “a casual follower of what’s happening there”. He admires “Larry Block and his character development, Donald Westlake’s comic work and the style and dialogue of Elmore Leonard.” But he feels there’s “a confusion” in the genre. “Some are doing courtroom dramas, others are doing forensic stuff. There are sensitive male detectives and hard-boiled female detectives – it’s a mish-mash and people don’t seem to know what to put in the lunch-box. Frankly, a lot of people write mysteries because the bar is set so low – and a significant section of the reading public doesn’t want anything other than the stereotype.”
But a significant number does. Which is where he comes in. His hero, Arkady (pronounced, as he subtly corrects me, Ar-kardy) Renko is a laconic (and now former) party member who, while typically Russian in temperament, is a likeable, sympathetic and sympathetically-drawn anti-hero with very human failings. A canny outsider with a bumbling obduracy about him, he's a sleuth with a morose world view who has bucked the Kremlin and survived, mostly by luck, political disgrace, the collapse of the Soviet system and the rise of the Moscow mafiosi. Most importantly, he has grown and developed as his situation and insights have changed.
“That’s the impulsion,” he enthuses, “what makes it worth while writing. I can’t write if it bores me. Two things count: it has to be interesting and, more important, I have to care about the character.” And he does care about Renko, who has been “an absorbing partner. Looking at life through his eyes is much more interesting than through mine. He brings more intelligence, more experience, more sympathy than I have. And he’s more willing to enter the dark rooms of risk, albeit reluctantly. He’s an unintentional hero, who generally pays the price for the risks he takes. In a way, too, he’s emblematic of what’s happening in Russia.
“I am lucky to have found this character: the best thing that happened was when I was researching Gorky Park and decided I couldn’t have just another all-American hero. That freed me, forced me to get as real Russian as the character. And after I researched in Moscow and among the Russian émigré community here, I didn’t dare create a false one.” It was also the making of Cruz Smith, Big Bucks Best-seller.
A graduate of Pennsylvania University in '64, he was a sportswriter for a local paper before selling ice cream as a Good Humour man in the black neighborhoods of Hampstead, New Jersey to fund a short-lived European sojourn. Then followed more journalism and a managing editorship of a New York magazine, For Men Only, at which he supplemented his low income by buying stories from his pseudonymous self.
Marriage and another European vacation later, he was by 1969 broke and back in the Big Apple touting for work. A friend in a publishing house suggested he write novels. A year later he published his first, The Indians Won and over the next decade three dozen more, all under pen names, including Jake Logan westerns, Nick Carter mysteries, and paperback quickies as Martin Quinn and Simon Quinn. He barely made a living wage until a detective novel, Gypsy in Amber, was made into a TV movie.
The Martin Smith byline of his three Gypsy novels reflected his jazz musician father’s British ancestry. His breakthrough novel, Nightwing, in 1977 had the Cruz added, honouring his jazz singer mother’s Pueblo Indian mother. Its vampire bats and mysticism melange scored him a $500,000 windfall in book and movie money.
But five years earlier, he had begun work on a grisly tale of serial murder in Moscow. Trouble was, his publishers, Putnam, were dismayed that their $15,000 advance for a “US hero behind the Iron Curtin tale” had bought a story of an unreconstructed communist. Worse in those antagonistic days, he was a communist with heart, and soul. They refused to publish it. Smith proposed buying back the rights. Putnam demurred, before relenting five years of fighting later. Cruz Smith promptly took the manuscript to Random House, which more promptly bought it for a cool million dollars.
Gorky Park became a 1981 runaway bestseller and later a box-office hit. Surprisingly to its author, it also prompted sequels, first Polar Star (on the Soviet fishing fleet) in ’89 then Red Square (set in post-glasnost Russia) three years later.
If history repeats, and it should because Havana Bay is a fine novel with an evocative sense of place, powerful characterisation and the usual Cruz Smith tapestry of detail, irony and sardonic portraits, he will have another bestseller on his CV. Which must be a bitter-sweet marker - he’s written other books between Renko visitations to limited (by his standards) success. His ambitious Stallion Gate (Soviet spies and the atomic bomb project), for instance, failed to impress the critics while Rose, a meticulously researched literary novel of Victorian pit girls, won some acclaim but sold moderately.
In a way, setting Renko in Havana is like revisiting the Soviet Union of 15 years ago. "I positioned him in Cuba for that, sure, but I have always had a strong interest in politics and Cuba is either the last stronghold or last stranglehold of communism in the world. My books must have a strong political and sociological element for me to write them – but the politics is not preaching, more a sharing of experience. My first major was in sociology, you know, and I may well have been a sociologist if I could only have passed statistics. But statistics bounced me out, and into writing.”
The stats for Havana Bay read three years in the writing, five field trips to Cuba, "months and months of research and hundreds of hours talking to helpful Cuban writers and a forensics expert there who introduced me into the medical/legal institute, just as I have written."
The reaction from Cuba has been – silence. Not so from the Cuban-American community in Miami. "I went down to Miami with some anxiety after the book's release, even though it is critical of the regime there and sympathetic to the Cubans. But I also advocate the lifting of embargoes and I was warned that to say that in Miami can lead to them giving you back your head on a plate. Yet the people I met were very appreciative, they felt it was an accurate reflection of Havana."
In the local press there, criticism was more pointed, some suggesting Cruz Smith was writing of an early 90s Cuba that is no more but that still suits the American mindset. Much of that comment, however, does seem to have its own ax-grinding agenda.
In Havana Bay, Renko flies to Cuba in response to a friend's plea. But he is a man in mourning, who has determined to die. Until someone tries to kill him. "Arkady is an interesting reflection of someone who is trying to disappear, who has centred their life on another," says Cruz Smith. "When his love was gone, he felt so was he. The trick was to get across how awful and black life is when you lose someone like that and then get them out of it. That required more than one jolt."
His main problem, he mentions as an afterthought as we prepare to sign off, "is that I only write about what I am curious about. That means I know nothing about it at all, and have to find out. And that always takes a while to get together, and then even longer to figure out how to make fiction from it. Then you only ever use the smallest amount of what you have learned. And when it’s finished, you hose it all out again. Unfortunately, the lessons and the laws you learn for one book don’t apply to the next. They always need new rules. Just like life really,” he overs-and-outs.
This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1999
Murray Waldren's latest book The Mind and Times of Reg Mombassa (HarperCollins) is available from all good book stores, including: Gleebooks Shearers Bookshop Readings Better Read Than Dead Dymocks Angus & Robertson Borders The Co-op Bookshop Australian Online Bookstore Booktopia Seekbooks The Nile The Book Abyss
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