One of the nouveau millionaires, Pasha Ivanov - head of NoviRus Security - has (apparently) jumped to his death from his 10-story Moscow apartment after exhibiting increasingly peculiar behavior. Renko insists on looking into Ivanov's dem
As the story opens it's 2004 and the Soviet Union has dissolved into separate states. Some savvy former physicists have taken advantage of the chaos to become multi-millionaires and Arkady Renko - determined as always - is still a police investigator in Moscow.
One of the nouveau millionaires, Pasha Ivanov - head of NoviRus Security - has (apparently) jumped to his death from his 10-story Moscow apartment after exhibiting increasingly peculiar behavior. Renko insists on looking into Ivanov's demise despite the objections of his boss, Prosecutor Zurin, who wants the whole business wrapped up pronto. Renko finds some odd things in Ivanov's apartment, like a closet floor covered with salt, but eventually concedes that the former physicist's death looks like suicide.
Fast forward a few weeks and Renko is stationed more than 400 miles from Moscow in "The Zone". This is the area surrounding Chernobyl (in the Ukraine) - where a catastrophic nuclear accident occurred in 1986. It seems that Ivanov's successor at NoviRus, Lev Timofeyev, was found murdered near a Chernobyl cemetery and Prosecutor Zurin - seeing this as a good opportunity to get Renko out of his hair - sends him to "investigate".
People in The Zone were evacuated after the accident and the current sparse population around Chernobyl includes scientists studying the aftermath of the disaster; elderly people who've snuck back to their old homes; some squatters, thieves, scavengers, and poachers; and a small contingent of military/police personnel. Law enforcement in the area is sketchy at best and the head cop, Commander Marchenko, doesn't want his record marred by a homicide. Still, he's not happy about Renko sticking his nose into local affairs.
As it turns out Renko is unable to make much headway with the investigation since the crime scene was seriously mishandled and contaminated, the squatters who found the body can't be found, and no one will tell him anything. Still, Renko continues his inquiries, becoming acquainted with some of the local scientists and residents - and possibly being exposed to radiation and radioactive food. Pretty soon someone in The Zone is shot dead and a former cohort of Ivanov's shows up in Chernobyl to 'help' Renko.
Meanwhile Renko has become a sort of 'big brother' to Zhenya, a troubled 11-year-old boy living in a Moscow orphanage. On Sundays Renko would take Zhenya to an amusement park, though the boy never spoke to him or even acknowledged his presence. Still, Zhenya began acting out when Renko left for Chernobyl, and Renko's one-sided phone conversations with the boy demonstrate a bit of his softer (and more imaginative) side.
The strength of the story lies mostly in the descriptions of The Zone - the creepy bleak atmosphere, destruction, desolation, cancers, deaths, plants, animals, people, etc. Renko even meets a former military man who's in denial about the disaster, claiming it isn't radiation that destroyed The Zone but rather 'radiophobia' (fear of radiation).
As Renko investigates various crimes he gets threatened and beat up; chases a thief on a motorcycle; takes a trip to Kiev; drinks too much; becomes involved with a woman; visits a Jewish tomb; and more. In time Renko solves the murders but the motive for the crime spree seems overly convoluted and unconvincing (to me). Still, the Russian and Ukranian settings are interesting and I enjoyed catching up with Renko, who always manages to stay alive and keep (or regain) his job against all odds.
I'd recommend the book to mystery readers, especially fans of Martin Cruz Smith.