“Havana Bay”

After seven years, the novelist brings Arkady Renko back for a trip to Cuba.

Topics: Books,

After a few uneven novels, Martin Cruz Smith has plucked Arkady Renko, the hero of “Gorky Park,” “Polar Star” and “Red Square,” out of a seven-year freeze to take on the baddies once again. By sending Detective Renko to Havana to identify the body of his old friend Sergei Pribluda, Smith sets himself a considerable challenge: Not only must he provide the sophisticated whirls of intrigue for which “Gorky Park” is famous; he has to make the country seem real from a Russian’s perspective. Arkady has to assimilate language, customs and even a little Cuban forensicology at a dizzying rate. But the tropical locations of “Havana Bay” reward both the author — who meets the challenge by grounding the book with precise, credible detail — and his inexhaustible protagonist.

A cabal of Cuban police officers wants to prevent Arkady from identifying the body, and, if possible, to prevent him from going home alive. Only one officer, a single mother named Ofelia Osorio, comes to his assistance, and together the two try to get to the heart of an international conspiracy of venal, murderous thugs. Their love affair is as predictable as a car collision on the local news — and, as far as the writing is concerned, just as disastrous. “He was in her and she wrapped herself around him. Her tongue was sweet, her back hard, and where he joined her she was endlessly deep.” Or another clunker: “Outside, he heard the ocean say, This is the wave that will sweep away the sand, topple the buildings and flood the streets. This is the wave. This is the wave.” Well, look out, Miami!

Happily, Smith has a more delicate touch with the rest of the novel. He takes the reader along with Arkady on a hairpin-curve tour through the topics of Russo-Cuban relations, Santeria and the local conventions of hustling with the unsentimental deftness of a seasoned guide. Smith, like other Cold War writers, has had some difficulty in the past few years finding the emerging markets for intrigue. His 1992 novel “Red Square” was an interesting but shallow dive into Moscow’s organized crime problem; his most recent novel, “Rose,” was an ambitious piece of historical fiction about the perils of coal mining in England. So while the art of John Le Carri, an acknowledged master, has found new outlets in such novels as “The Tailor of Panama,” Smith’s writing hasn’t suffered much, but it hasn’t excelled, either. Now it has. Though the author may not have a deft hand with his love scenes, what has love got to do with the spy business, anyhow?

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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