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    Russian crime and punishment

    By BILL THOMAS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 2000


    It was once assumed that the collapse of the Soviet Union would finish off novelists who specialized in Cold War thrillers. With the communists out of business who would be the bad guys?

    The answer soon became obvious: ex-communists.

    True, 10 years of so-called "democratic reforms" did change some things about the old system. The Soviet Union used to be a police state and a welfare state. Now Russia is only a police state, where the police often double as criminals. No wonder the last people average Russians would call for help is the cops -- whom they refer to as moosar or garbage -- which makes Stuart M. Kaminsky's heroic Inspector Porfiry Rostinkov sometimes a little hard to believe.

    Fans of the Rostinkov series probably know what to expect from the hero of Kaminsky's latest book,Fall of a Cosmonaut. What they may have stopped thinking about is how such a noble character has managed to survive through 13 novels in a job designed to bring out the worst in anyone.

    Rostinkov, of course, is a pragmatist, an attribute that serves him well in his newest encounter with the forces of evil, this time in the form of a PR-conscious Russian space agency. Something has gone terribly wrong, as they say, on the Mir space station -- yes, it's still up there -- making the cosmonauts on board at the time marked men when they return to Earth. Rostinkov is assigned to find one who's given authorities the slip and bring him in for liquidation.

    Kaminsky weaves in two other semi-connected subplots, each involving the sort of crime and punishment that could only take place in post-communist Russia. In one, a chess nut, madly in love with a movie director's wife, threatens to kill the director and destroy the negative of his bio-epic on Tolstoy if he isn't paid $2-million. The other deals with the brutal murder of an academic researcher by a hammer-wielding colleague. Kaminsky's jumping back and forth is a bit distracting, still the stories more or less work together as police move in on their suspects. Elmore Leonard may be the master at tightening the noose on losers, but Kaminsky is good at capturing the pulse of a no-exit Russian manhunt.

    Rostinkov and his staff get their men in all cases, yet not before we catch a glimpse of Rosty's good side, which he displays in dealing with a shady character who shoots people with his vintage KGB umbrella.

    Kaminsky is a skillful storyteller, even if his attempt to evoke Moscow atmospherics relies a little too heavily on naming streets and other landmarks: "He was there, on the riverbank, right across from the Kremlin," said Lydia. "Right in front . . . of the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski Moskau." Most Muscovites have probably never heard of this luxury hotel, and those who have call it simply the Kempinski. Has product placement finally made its way into detective fiction?

    As to the workings of Rostinkov's moral compass, Kaminsky is less specific, though his hero's hobby of amateur plumbing may offer some clues.

    "Why do you fix toilets and sinks and drains," Nina asks.

    "Because," Rostinkov replies, "plumbing presents a problem that always has a solution. During the day I must deal with people and problems that almost never have solutions."

    Actually, there are plenty of solutions. Rostinkov is far too cautious to come right out and say so, but what the Russian justice system lacks is justice. And in Kaminsky's novels that's the real crime.

    Bill Thomas is the author of Red Tape: Adventure Capitalism in the New Russia and other books.

    Fall of a Cosmonaut

    By Stuart M. Kaminsky

    Mystery Press, $24.95

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