By Robert White
Delacorte Press; 442 pages; $23.95
Just as every courtroom thriller invites comparisons with Scott Turow's "Presumed Innocent," so does every mystery novel set in Russia have to stand up against the memory Martin Cruz Smith's "Gorky Park."
"Siberian Light," a first novel by Monterey writer Robin White, does a creditable job of mining new material from what seems at first to be familiar terrain. The title refers primarily to the reservoirs of crude oil pooled beneath the Russian tundra, but the novel also provides an interesting shift in perspective, a new way of seeing the conventions of the post-Cold War thriller.
Gregori Nowek, widower, amateur violinist and former geologist, now serves as the mayor of Markovo, a small Siberian river town that depends on the good graces of AmerRus, a joint venture operation drilling the nearby Tunguska oil wells. Two of Nowek's militimen are killed at the home of Andrei Ryzkhov, a political fixer who wheels and deals on behalf of AmerRus. White writes, "Son of a Moscow bigshot from the old days, Ryzkhov was a biznisman, one of the new breed, and aside from the gangsters, or perhaps because of them, he was one of the richest men in all Irkutsk Oblast."
Ryzkhov is also dead, but, unlike the militiamen, his was not a swift death. When Nowek visits the crime scene, he discovers that the dealmaker was tortured before he was killed. Nowek also finds three clues: a piece of unusual gravel, a chunk of odd-smelling bone and a scrap of cloth clamped in a dead dog's mouth.
The local ex-KGB official wants to take the investigation away from Nowek, but the mayor balks at relinquishing his responsibilities. Instead, he heads out to the AmerRus installation himself. There he meets Dr. Anna Vereskaya, an American ecologist and expert on the nearly extinct Siberian tiger. After catching her in an important lie about her personal relationship with Ryzkhov, Nowek sees her as a likely suspect.
Before long, however, Nowek undergoes a series of unimaginable trials. He risks his job, is nearly killed, causes the death of another man and allows himself to fall in love again. He returns to Tunguska again, this time to rescue his teenaged daughter and to bring to light the atrocities buried in the snow.
Robin White has lived in Siberia, worked in the oil industry and is an experienced pilot. His expertise shines through the pages of "Siberian Light," giving its plot and scene-setting the weight of authority.
He describes Siberia as a place of secrets, haunted by the ghosts of the past. Even the weather conspires to lend a spectral aspect to day-to-day life. White writes, "At sixty degrees of frost the steam has nowhere to go. It coalesces into a dense mist the locals call 'people fog.' The mist is as motionless as the air. Walk and you leave a tunnel swirling behind. The fog can last all day, and Markovo becomes a warren of tunnels, marking a person's travel to work, to a shop, to an alley to drink."
The novel follows the misty trails of gulag survivors, scientists, members of the Russian mafia, American convicts and Communists-turned-rabid-capitalists. White works hard to define these characterizations beyond the expected stereotypes. The characterizations all ring true, as does the budding romance between Mayor Nowek and Dr. Vereskya.
What doesn't quite ring true is the plot's final revelation, the ultimate secret guarded so desperately by all of Nowek's antagonists. The action is so swift, the suspense so carefully calibrated, that it's almost possible to overlook the note of implausibility that creeps into "Siberian Light" at its climax. But that false note is still enough to keep this very promising debut from succeeding completely.
(c) 1997 by Michael Berry