About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Police in Totalitarian States in Crime Fiction (Part II)

Tonight I put up my second post on the police in totalitarian states. In my previous post I looked to mysteries from the 1930’s through the 1970’s in Germany, the U.S.S.R. and Argentina. This post moves into the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Arkady Renko, in Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, is investigating a triple murder in Moscow in 1981. It is near the end of Communist rule but the U.S.S.R. remains under the fierce grip of the Communist Party.

Renko does not shy away when the investigation strays into officialdom even at significant personal cost. Finding corruption in high places he is dismissed from the police. He is forced into working at menial jobs and eventually finds himself working at cutting up fish on a factory ship in the Bering Sea as far from Moscow as it is physically possible to be in the U.S.S.R. While on the ship he solves a crime in the book Polar Star.

How many police are willing to lose their job to solve a crime?

Everyone appreciates individuals whose personal integrity is so strong they would give up their work to avoid compromising their honour but few take such action. The personal and family costs are so high from such personal sacrifice. We do not hear of mass resignations of police in totalitarian states in real life.

In Red Square by Edward Topol and Fridrikh Neznansky, set a year or two after Gorky Park, the investigator, Igor Shamrayev, is asked by Leonid Brezhnev to investigate the death of Brezhnev’s brother-in-law. He is given a letter from Brezhnev, the head of the Soviet Union, that gives him unlimited authority in the investigation. After determining there was murder done Shamrayev starts delving into the murky world of the Brezhnevs. There is an elite in the workers paradise. Numerous members of the family have done very well through corruption in the supposedly socialist economy.

What happens to the policeman when there are no checks on his authority in an investigation?

When used to capture criminals everyone is happy but the potential for corrupt actions is immense. It is inevitable that such power will be abused when there are no checks on the exercise of the power.

Most recently, in A Case of Two Cities by Qiu Xiaolong, Inspector Chen is given comparable authority to Shamrayev when he is made the Emperor’s Special Envoy with an Imperial Sword. (It is an interesting title to be given in a Communist country.) As stated in my review it gives him the right, in an emergency, to search and arrest without warrant. He is tasked in the book with investigating a high profile anti-corruption case in the Communist China of the 1990’s. While given special power he must tread carefully as he navigates between the different groups wielding power in the Party and government.

In Death of a Red Heroine Chen is called on to investigate the death of a young woman who is famous in China as a “model worker”. Her death has significant political consequences.

In both books Chen must deal most delicately with the high cadre comrade children because of their special status in Communist China.

How is a police officer to investigate crime when he, while serving one bureaucracy, must be careful not to offend high ranking civil servants in other ministries?

The life of the police in dictatorships is complicated as they must continually deal with political issues while solving crime.

After my first post I received numerous comments setting out several other mysteries involving the police in dictatorships. If you have not read those comments I encourage readers to go back to my previous post to see some excellent suggestions for crime fiction reading.


  1. Bill - I was really, really hoping that you would mention the Arkady Renko series in your fine look at investigating crime given the restrictions of a totalitarian regime. To my mind, Martin Cruz Smith does an excellent job of conveying that atmosphere.

  2. Margot: Thanks for the kind words. I have always thought Renko was a great character. Smith makes me feel I am in Russia in each book.

  3. And it is interesting how Renko's career has changed with the various changes in regime.

    I enjoyed Death of a Red Heroine (though the solution to the mystery itself was a bit simple-minded, the atmosphere of the country and politics were well done). I haven't read any more of the series, though.

  4. Bill, I'm glad you wrote about Arkady Renko. GORKY PARK was the first book by Martin Cruz Smith I read, and I have POLAR STAR and HAVANA BAY on my shelf. I was quite overwhelmed by GORKY PARK, particularly it's cold and depressing portrayal of life in Moscow under communist rule. Renko wants to get away from the very system he is a byproduct of and though he is quite helpless, he doesn't lose hope as he plots his escape in the US. The film version, with William Hurt as Renko, didn't hold for me. I'd have preferred Gabriel Byrne.

  5. Hello again Bill. This is just to let you know that I've set up your blog to post into our Friend Feed crime fiction discussion group here:
    http://friendfeed.com/crime-and-mystery-fiction , as I believe you and Margot have been discussing. We all look forward to seeing you there!

  6. Maxine: Thanks for the comments.

    Renko has an amazing set of career experiences with the multiple changes in Russian governance during his working life.

    I will be registering today and look forward to participating.

  7. Prashant: Thanks for commenting.

    I do not believe I have seen the film version. Once in awhile I watch the film version of a book. I find myself looking for differences in plot between book and film.