The Siberian dilemma as stated by Moscow investigator Arkady Renko is simply this: If you fall into a lake in Siberia in winter, do you stay in and die quickly or do you climb out and let the hypothermia kill you a bit more slowly? The question always is to act or not to act.
It's a question faced almost daily by Renko in his job as an investigator and, even though he knows that to act is often dangerous and most likely won't accomplish anything, he can't help himself. He acts to solve crimes and bring criminals to whatever bit of justice he can achieve or, in some cases as in this tale, he acts to prevent an innocent party from being punished. He knows the system is corrupt and he is thoroughly cynical about his prospects for success, but still, he keeps trying. He keeps striving.
This time out, Renko is worried about his lover (former lover?), the journalist Tatiana Petrovna. Tatiana had headed off to Siberia in search of a story about the oligarchs who control the oil fields there. She has managed to make friends (or is it more than just friendship?) with one of the oligarchs, Mikhail Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov is also a political dissident who is running for president against Putin. Renko has tried repeatedly to reach Tatiana but she isn't responding to his calls and texts. He fears for her safety and is anxious to go and find her.
It seems serendipitous then when his boss, the prosecutor Zurin, wants to send him to Siberia to prosecute Aba Makhmud, a Chechen who is a supposed terrorist who allegedly tried to shoot Zurin. Renko is glad for the excuse to go, but Siberia is a big place and he doesn't really know where Tatiana is so finding her may be a problem.
He interviews the young Aba and soon finds that things are not quite as reported to him, so he acts to rectify a miscarriage of justice. Then it's off to find Tatiana, which actually proves easier than he had feared. After all, she's with Kuznetsov who is a celebrity.
Then, through a series of circumstances, Renko and Tatiana, along with Renko's "factotum" and Boris Benz, another oil oligarch and close friend of Kuznetsov, and another man go on a bear hunt. It becomes a terror-filled expedition in which two are shot from ambush and killed and a bear becomes the hunter.
As always in Smith's books, there's a bit of Russian history and politics underlying the story. We get descriptions of the Lake Baikal area and the historical prison city of Chita, as well as some of the shamanic practices of natives to that area. Smith excels at creating the atmosphere of a setting. One feels the oppressive nature of the society and the unforgiving climate of brutally freezing temperatures of a Siberian winter. I had to put on an extra sweater just to read it!
It was an entertaining book. My only real problem with it was the ending which seemed a bit rushed and truncated. But it was very nice to have Martin Cruz Smith back with a new Arkady Renko adventure after several years' absence.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars