From Russia, with crime and punishment

Our Travel Writer winner ventured to Moscow with crime novels as his guide

Red Square: I see the colourful onion domes through Renko’s eyes, as “a crowd of turbaned Moors”. Photograph: iStock/Getty

My article for the Irish Times Travel Writer competition last year, which won me a trip to Russia with the Travel Department, was about my predilection for seeking out local fictional sleuths to accompany me on my trips, so the inevitable question at the prize-giving was whether I had a crime writer who would be my guide.

I didn't, but a month later my Christmas stocking was filled with tales of foul play in Moscow and St Petersburg, with a diverse cast of possible companions, including Porfiry Petrovich, RN Morris's re-creation of Dostoevsky's investigating magistrate in Crime and Punishment. But as soon as I encountered Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko it was love at first read. I knew he was the one for Moscow.

Equally loathed by Leonid Brezhnev’s state apparatchiks and Vladimir Putin’s oligarchs – the novels span the period from the 1980s to the 2010s – Renko, his grandiose title of Senior Investigator for Very Important Cases notwithstanding, is the classic outsider detective, whose investigations end less in a triumphant vanquishing of evil than in a small, temporary rebalancing of the scales of justice.

Renko is steeped in Russian literature (he keeps his 9mm behind a copy of Pasternak's translation of Macbeth) and haunted by Russian history (his father, nicknamed the Butcher, was a general under Stalin), and from the first novel I am enamoured by this man who "looks incomplete without a cigarette", a fearless investigator who is also an astute observer, often ironic, occasionally lyrical, never unsympathetic and all the more remarkable as he is the creation of a Californian who'd spent only two weeks in the Soviet capital when he wrote Gorky Park, the first novel in the series.

St Basil’s Cathedral: when we get our first glimpse of it by night there is an audible gasp. Photograph: Max Ryazanov/Moment/Getty

Audible gasp

By the time we get to Moscow I have read five of them, each in its way contributing to the enjoyment of the trip. Often it is the pleasure of seeing a world-famous sight through the spectrum of a well-turned phrase. When we get our first glimpse of St Basil’s Cathedral by night there is an audible gasp in the coach. I see the colourful, floodlit onion domes through Renko’s eyes, as “a crowd of turbaned Moors”.

When we walk past what Renko knows as the Lenin State Library, it seems crestfallen for all its neoclassical grandeur, the "the archaeological ruins of that new world that never was". Other times it is a gem of tantalising "fact" that may be pure invention. Did artists of the nascent Soviet Union, in their revolutionary ardour, really propose painting the Kremlin necropolis's spruce trees red?

The investigator’s labours take us to places that might easily be overlooked in the frenetic round of sightseeing.

Seven Sisters: the Ukraina Hotel, now the Radisson Royal. Photograph: iStock/Getty

Hotel Ukraina

Would I have gone into Hotel Ukraina were it not where Renko and his partner, the loyal Det Sgt Victor Orlov, set up headquarters in Gorky Park? One of the Seven Sisters – the "wedding cake" skyscrapers Stalin commissioned to celebrate the city's 800th anniversary – the hotel is now a Radisson. As my real travel companions, Louise and Harry, sip their buckthorn, passion fruit and bird's tongue jasmine teas in art-deco luxury, I have a thought for poor Renko and his dogged team, surviving on samovars of black tea, ersatz coffee and vodka. (The hard-drinking Orlov would be appalled at my very fancy Virgin Mary.)

Ukraina Hotel: the diorama Moscow – Capital of the USSR. Photograph: iStock/Getty

An unexpected added pleasure is the diorama Moscow: Capital of the USSR, to which the hotel is now home. The perfectly detailed model of downtown Moscow in 1977 was commissioned by the Soviet Union's ministry of foreign affairs as a propaganda tool to be toured around western capitals when Moscow was obscured behind veils of suspicion and secrecy. In today's world of virtual reality it has the nostalgia of a railway set remembered from childhood.

Patriarch’s Ponds: the setting for the opening of The Master and Margarita. Photograph: Vladimir Varfolomeev/Flickr

Patriarch’s Ponds

In the most recent Renko novel, Tatiana, in which he unravels the truth behind the apparent suicide of an investigative journalist, a brief scene in Patriarch's Ponds leads me on a whole new literary adventure. The small park, in one of the city's most elegant neighbourhoods, is where Zhenya, the moody young chess-whizz hustler whom Renko unofficially adopts, unburdens unsuspecting opponents of their cash in lightning-fast games. It is also the setting for the opening scene of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Here the devil, in the guise of Prof Woland, first appears in Moscow, where he unleashes an entertaining whirlwind of mayhem among the city's literati.

The park itself has no sign of either the devil or devilish chess players, but I cannot resist giving an impromptu reading, to the mild amusement of the well-heeled Muscovites out in their Easter finery. Many are headed to the nearby Wolkonsky bakery, whose windows are full of cylindrical Easter cakes decorated to resemble the domes of a snow-capped Russian Orthodox church, which we sample in the next-door cafe.

Red Square

Red Square, the third of the eight books in the series, opens the door on a world of Russian art my knowledge of which was previously largely confined to Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall. "Where is Red Square?" is the insistent question that pours out, page after page, from the fax machine of the recently murdered Rudy Rosen. The question seems imbecilic to Renko until he realises that it refers not to the square in Moscow but to Kazimir Malevich's 1915 avant-garde masterpiece. It takes Renko 200 pages to locate the painting; it takes me two minutes on the infinitely superior technology of the internet to discover it is on loan to the Royal Academy of Arts for its exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917 -1932 – which, happily, I get to London for during the February midterm break.

The exhibition is stunning, pushing a visit to the State Russian Museum, the painting's permanent home, to the top of my must-do list for St Petersburg. The art professor Renko consults for his investigation into the world of art forgery and smuggling deplores the philistinism of "Homo sovieticus", who hung paintings of tractors on the walls while hiding modernist masterpieces behind the toilet, but in this wonderful gallery works of social realism and avant-garde hang happily in adjacent rooms, along with works from all the other major movements in 19th- and 20th-century Russian art. In the shadow of the illustrious Hermitage museum it is too easily overlooked.

Three Stations: Kazansky railway station, on Komsomolskaya Square. Photograph: iStock/Getty

Three Stations

Three Stations, the novel that precedes Tatiana, finds our intrepid sleuth tracking down the murderer of a young prostitute whose body is found in a trailer in the square of the novel's title. (On the map it is Komsomolskaya Square, but locals know it by the book's title.)

On a snowy morning in April there is little sign of the louche world of "pickpockets, flyboys handing out directions to strip clubs and slot arcades, gangs of street kids looking for the wounded, the slow, the easy mark" of Renko's description, but, having an hour before we board our train for St Petersburg, I take the opportunity to visit each station, whose very different architectural styles reflect the far-flung destinations to which their trains depart: Leningradsky "a Venetian palace", Kazansky "an Oriental mosque" and Yaroslavsky (from where the Trans-Siberian express leaves) reminiscent to Renko, in its Russian revivalist style, of " a clown's face and cap".

The square, presided over by another of the Seven Sisters, now the Moscow Hilton Leningradskaya, vividly highlights this city's centuries-old place as the focal point of a vast, diverse expanse of humankind.

Stalin’s Ghost

As we speed through the flat, empty, snow-covered countryside I am sad to be leaving Renko behind, but we are not quite done. When the train slows down for the first of its two stops I recognise the name of the station: Tver. It is where Stalin's Ghost, the sixth novel in the series, reaches its gruesome climax. The digital display in our carriage warns us not to descend unless this is our final destination. Recalling Renko's grim description of the place, there is little fear!


Hotel Ukraina's lobby bar is open 24 hours a day. Drinks from €10. Viewing the diorama is free;

Wolkonsky has several outlets in the city, serving sandwiches and pastries from €4;

State Russia Museum is generally open from 10am to 6pm, but hours vary, so check before visiting. Entry €6;

Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko novels are published by Simon & Schuster. Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita is published by Vintage.

John Poole was the winner of The Irish Times Travel Writer competition 2016. His prize, sponsored by Travel Department, was a trip to Russia earlier this year, on which this feature is based. John went on a nine-day trip to Moscow and St Petersburg, which costs from €1,499. See or call 01-6371650