[Amazon Link]

I've long enjoyed Martin Cruz Smith's novels featuring Arkady Renko, the Russian detective. He's not exactly prolific; eight Renko novels, starting with Gorky Park in 1981. (Compare with Sue Grafton, who's knocked out 23 Kinsey Millhone books since 1982.) But the books are worth waiting for. Renko's life over the past thirty years has followed that of Mother Russia, from Communist totalitarianism to heady liberation, to today's corrupt kleptocracy. Renko endures it all with bemusement and mordant dark humor; his only desire is to bring a little bit of justice to the evildoers when and where he can.

Here, things kick off with three deaths: (1) a translator is biking on the lonely, off-season Curonian Spit in Kaliningrad when a killer in a butcher's van does him in; (2) a famous Russian mobster is gunned down by perpetrators unknown; (3) a hard-hitting female journalist, Tatiana Petrovna, apparently falls to her death from her apartment balcony.

These are all seemingly unrelated, but (of course) they aren't. Renko is especially drawn to the death of the journalist. The authorities want to write Tatiana off as a suicide, but witnesses report hearing a scream. Tatiana has been a thorn in the side of the powerful for years, daring to report stories at odds with the "official" versions, exposing incompetence, arrogance, and corruption. So there's no limit to possible suspects.

Renko is his usual dogged self, picking up unlikely clues, and following seemingly hopeless leads. Especially noteworthy is the translator's notebook, which apparently passed through Tatiana's hands before winding up in Renko's possession. Unfortunately, it's all in a private code, full of mysterious symbols in the translator's private language. Can it be puzzled out? Enter the lad Zenhya, the semi-feral chess prodigy to who Renko became a sorta-guardian in a previous book. He can see connections and make logical leaps unavailable to lesser mortals. But that (unfortunately) puts him in danger himself. Can he save himself and Renko too?

I really enjoyed the book. You can learn a lot, painlessly, about Russia simply by reading this series. Much is set in Kaliningrad, a Russian outclave on the Baltic sea, nestled between Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. A particularly amusing/depressing bit concerns the Kaliningrad "Monster", officially the "House of Soviets", widely thought to be the ugliest building in the world. Construction started in the 1960s, and was abandoned in the 1980s, and it remains unfinished. It was painted light blue in 2005 when Putin visited; according to Renko's guide, this was to make it as invisible as possible.

Deceptive Practice

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Ricky Jay is an actor (you've almost certainly seen him if you've seen any David Mamet movies), a magician, a writer, and somewhat of a historian of magicians and other denizens of the less-respected performing arts. This documentary looks at his life, at least as much of it he's willing to reveal.

Ricky grew up in New York, and became obsessed with magic and the attendant show biz at a very young age. That can't have been an easy road to follow; the movie mentions in passing that Ricky left home and cut his parental ties as a teenager in order to follow his muse. (Given the sixties timeframe and Ricky's appearance and demeanor back then, I can't help but wonder if illicit pharmaceuticals were also involved, but the movie doesn't go into detail, or get his parents' side of the story.)

Ricky's talent and hilarious stage patter brought him modest fame. He was on a lot of TV talk shows. (I remember him being on Saturday Night Live; IMDB tells me that was in 1977.) Eventually, his semi-sleazy appearance and acting skills made him a natural choice for movies, often as a hustler or criminal. He played a bad guy's henchman in the James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies.

But Ricky also has a fascination with the history and lore of his craft. He has a number of books to his credit, exploring the history of magic and (other) con games. The movie gives plenty of time to his heroes and mentors, old-timey magicians I had never heard of.

All in all, an interesting documentary. Didn't show as much magic as I expected, but made up for it in illuminating the culture of magicians.