Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith (1989): Set in the waning days of the Soviet Union and the early days of glasnost and perestroika, Polar Star brings Smith’s dogged investigator Arkady Renko back for another investigation no one really wants to succeed.
Stripped of his Party card and his status as a police officer after the events of Gorky Park (about six years before the beginning of this novel), Renko now works the “slime line” on a massive Soviet fish-processing ship, the Polar Star, currently working the Pacific fishing zones north of the Aleutian island chain.
But while gutting fish for a living has turned out to be a good way to numb Renko to his past, his past isn’t done with him yet. A female crew member shows up dead in one of the nets. The Polar Star‘s cooperative venture with several American fishing trawlers makes the investigation more complex than it initially seems. And as Renko is the only man aboard with a background in police work, he’s drafted by the Captain and the omnipresent Political Officer to investigate the death and, hopefully, rule it a suicide.
Set almost entirely on the Polar Star, the novel portrays in fascinating detail everything from the workings of industrial-size fishing boats to the crew’s obsession with buying Western consumer goods during their one-day stopover in Dutch Harbour. We also get a brief tour through Soviet-era folk-singing, a twisty murder plot, and a brief exegesis on sub-hunting. Also, fish and fishing and the awful slime eels.
Renko is even more depressed and jaded than he was in Gorky Park, understandably so. But before it’s all over, he’ll have to resurrect the detective part of himself — and, to some extent, the part of himself that actually wants to continue living. Highly recommended.