In the hot zone
Martin Cruz Smith revisits the site of world's greatest techno-blunder
Russian homicide detective Arkady Renko's cases have mirrored the historic upheavals within the Soviet Union during the past quarter of a century. He has battled his old-guard bosses and the KGB in Gorky Park, been thrown into exile aboard a Soviet trawler in Polar Star, returned to confront the rise of the post-Soviet Mafia in Red Square and, in a busman's holiday, investigated a friend's murder during a tour of Russia's orphan, Cuba, in Havana Bay.
In his latest adventure, Wolves Eat Dogs, the indomitable inspector confronts crimes against man and nature when a murder trail leads into the frightening, fascinating world of modern man's biggest technological blunder, Chernobyl.
When wealthy New Russian Pasha Ivanov falls (or is pushed) 11 stories to his death, Renko's business-as-usual superiors rule it a suicide, case closed. But a saltshaker found beneath the body leads Renko to an eerie discovery: Ivanov's sumptuous digs are white-hot with cesium 137, a deadly radioactive isotope.
Two years ago, popular suspense writer Martin Cruz Smith visited Chernobyl against the advice of almost everyone. Like his fictional alter ego, Smith listened to his instincts instead.
"When I first broached the subject of Chernobyl, everyone said that's the last thing anyone would want to read about, it's so grim," he says by phone from his home in San Rafael, California. "But when I went there, it was so much more interesting than I first thought. It was interesting to see people under such pressure. There was incredible heroism among the so-called liquidators who were cleaning up that mess. Many of them carried radioactive materials in their hands with absolutely no idea how dangerous that was, but some of them did understand and they sacrificed themselves."Many Americans assume Chernobyl was abandoned after the 1986 disaster. Not so. The 135,000 inhabitants of the two closest towns, Pripyat and Chernobyl, were evacuated, but the workers who manned the three functioning reactors and the liquidators who tried to contain the damage within the fourth reactor stayed behind. The last of the active Chernobyl reactors was finally shut down last year.
Smith recalls his first look at the sarcophagus that surrounds, though hardly "contains," the world-famous number four reactor; radioactivity from it continues to seep into the groundwater that feeds the Dnepr River.
"It looks like a monument to a disaster," he says. "It strongly resembles a cage, a cage that looks very impressive at first sight but then the more you study and know about it, the flimsier it becomes."In fact, Chernobyl has become the unofficial sick joke of the once-proud Ukraine. There was the unnecessary low-power test that triggered the chain reaction that caused a deadly fireball to blow the roof off the tower, contaminating the Northern Hemisphere. Then came an unexplainable three-day silence from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev during which children played in the green foam, the plant's protection against radioactive release. After the forced evacuation of Pripyat, the government built a new town, Slavutych, on a radioactive site it called its "cesium patch.""Pripyat really lets you know that things have gone very much awry; you walk into a city of 50,000 and you're the only one," Smith recalls. "But then they moved the workers to Slavutych and planted them on radioactive ground. How could they screw up so badly?"Workers clad in camouflage commute daily from Slavutych to the reactors, passing through radiation detectors frequently. A microdot of cesium or plutonium invisible to the naked eye is enough to send a Geiger counter needle off the gage. In his week inside the Zone of Exclusion, Smith carried a dosimeter constantly.
"Some of the veterans get these cavalier attitudes. I had a guide with me in a Pripyat amusement park who called me over and said, Put your dosimeter here.' So I put it down and the needle just flew off, a thousand times normal. I said, why are we standing here?! It was just a random spot in the town that was not marked by a stake and warnings."In Smith's new novel, one of Ivanov's vice presidents is found in Pripyat with his throat slashed. Murder means little in a town that has seen so much death. To solve the case, Renko enlists the help of Eva, a sexy but deeply cynical physician who treats the scavengers and old Ukrainians who have returned to Chernobyl despite its deadly toxicity.
The title of the novel, Wolves Eat Dogs, refers to a leitmotif expertly woven throughout the narrative. Wolves in fact have returned to Chernobyl in great numbers, as have wild boar, deer and other wildlife, all of it radioactive from wandering through the so-called "black villages" and numerous hot zones that will remain for thousands of years. For Chernobyl, and indeed the former Soviet Union, explosive change has brought about a new natural order, a wolf-eat-dog world.
In retrospect, Smith considers Chernobyl one of the first irreparable cracks that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. "The Russian authorities would like to say it was human error, that 15 fools got together and did this thing," he says. "But in fact, the reactor was unstable at low levels of output and this piece of information had not been relayed to the technicians who were running the test." Smith says the catastrophic events at Chernobyl brought to light the secrecy at the heart of the Soviet system. "The Russian people definitely saw it as the worst example of that," he notes, and the three-day delay before the general alarm was issued led to "a real collapse in the credibility and belief in the state." Jay MacDonald happened to be driving through Middletown, Pennsylvania, during the Three Mile Island nuclear incident.