Book Review: Independence Square by Martin Cruz Smith

In Martin Cruz Smith's Independence Square, Detective Arkaday Renko risks his life when he heads to Ukraine shortly before the Russian invasion to find an anti-Putin activist who has mysteriously disappeared. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

The indignities of age just keep getting heaped upon the shoulders of our hero, the intrepid, incorruptible Russian police detective Arkady Renko. In his professional life, he’s been forced into a pointless desk job by his politically ambitious boss. In his personal life, his longtime lover Tatiana Petrovna has chosen her career as an investigative reporter over their relationship. Now she’s off chasing leads on Russia’s western front, where rumors of war with Ukraine grow stronger by the day.

The last straw comes when he finally goes to see a doctor about the recent incidents he’s been trying to write off as mere byproducts of aging. Dr Pavlova is sympathetic but no-nonsense as she informs him that he has Parkinson’s disease. It’s not a death sentence, but it will affect his quality of life, and he needs to see a specialist about managing his symptoms. Understandably, Arkady needs some time to process the diagnosis:

There were, he supposed, three ways to deal with this new problem: acceptance, confrontation, and denial. Acceptance was not so much a strategy as an aspiration. It would come in its own time, presumably once he’d exhausted every other option. Confrontation was all well and good, but it would elevate the disease to a station more central and important than Arkady wanted it to be. He had heard too many people talking about their battles with disease, as though triumph were simply a matter of moral fiber and determination. The problem with that, while his body was the battlefield, he wasn’t willing to fight.

So, Arkady decides, denial it is! And nothing helps a man forget his troubles quite like work, even if it’s on a task that isn’t strictly official. A local gangster known as Bronson comes to Arkady with a problem. His adult daughter Karina has gone missing. He offers Arkady money to look into the issue but Arkady, true to form, refuses. Searching for missing people is part of his job description as a police officer anyway, and it’s not like any of the paper he’s pushing in his new desk position is in need of actual attention.

Relieved that Arkady will help, Bronson volunteers what little he knows. Karina is a violinist who had, up until her disappearance, been involved with the anti-government movement Forum For Democracy. He can’t say for certain when exactly she went missing: she’s a grown woman, and one who had become more distant from him—perhaps out of embarrassment at his lifestyle—after the death of her mother. But he hasn’t been able to contact her in weeks, and that worries him. 

As Arkady investigates, he discovers that Karina has been AWOL from her beloved string quartet as well, confirming that she probably is in trouble and isn’t just avoiding her dad. Her roommate and second violinist Elena is concerned for her friend but should, perhaps, be more worried for herself. As a Crimean Tatar, Elena is considered ethnically undesirable by the Putin regime. When murder enters the mix, Arkady and Elena follow the trail of clues west to her homeland, even as war looms on the horizon and cunning minds in opposition to our heroes’ seek to eliminate any threats to their master plan.

I have long been meaning to pick up the award-winning Arkady Renko books and am so glad I finally got a chance to do so with this tenth installment in the series. Martin Cruz Smith continues to write with the consummate skill expected of a Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master, his own diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease notwithstanding. In fact, his experiences lend that much more believability to Arkady’s state of mind as he navigates this case, encountering obstacles both internal and external that he’d never even imagined before.

Believability is, in fact, one of the best things about and themes of this deeply intelligent and of-the-moment mystery novel. While Parkinson’s and political issues prevented Mr Smith from doing his usual extensive research on the ground in Russia and Ukraine, some beliefs prove surprisingly universal, as Arkady discovers when chatting with Alex, a young friend of his son’s who espouses what most people see as a mere conspiracy theory:

“Of course they faked them! Think about it. First satellite in space–Soviet. First dog in space–Soviet. First man, first full twenty-four hours, first woman, first multiple crews, first spacewalk–all Soviet. So how come the Americans suddenly get to the moon first?”


“Because Korolev died, and no one was a genius designer like him.”


“No. Because they faked it. Stanley Kubrick filmed it on a soundstage in the desert.”


“If you say so.”


“It’s all online.” Alex looked triumphant.


There was no disproving what people had convinced themselves was true. How else had the Soviet Union lasted so long?

Wry, astute and just beautifully executed, this latest Arkady Renko mystery had me gasping with astonishment in the way all good classic mysteries do as the plot unfolded like magic before me. I need to go back and read more books in the series, and am cheering on the author as he continues to put out more excellent work in defiance of the body’s limitations.

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