In the first major case of his literary career, Gorky Park, Moscow detective Arkady Renko antagonized too many powerful people. As a consequence, he lost his job and his Communist party membership and was shuffled off into oblivion. He then disappeared from view for eight years before returning in Polar Star.
Renko's fallen about as far as a man possibly can. From being at the top of his profession as a criminal investigator, he's now working on the slime line on a Russian factory fishing ship in the Bering Sea. It's a joint Russian-American venture in which American trawlers catch the fish and dump them on the deck of the Polar Star. The crew on the factory ship then process the fish and freeze them so that they can ultimately get to the marketplace. It's a dirty, disgusting job and freezing cold to boot. Working on the slime line is a job for men who have fallen about as far as they possibly can.
Renko has been working the line in obscurity for quite some time, but then one day, one of the American trawlers lowers a net full of fish onto the deck of the Polar Star and caught up in the net is the body of a sexy young woman named Zina who had worked on the factory ship. The woman had last been seen standing by the rail of the ship during a dance which had been attended by the ship's crew along with some crew members from one of the American trawlers.
The ship's captain knows that Renko was once a top criminal investigator and so pulls him off the slime line and asks him to investigate the death. All of the Powers That Be are hoping that Renko will come up with a simple explanation that will not embarrass anyone other than the dead woman. The best verdict would be that she fell accidentally into the sea or, in the alternative, that she committed suicide and was then caught up in the trawler's net.
It's clear to Renko, though, that the woman was murdered and he is determined to get to the truth of the matter. Again, that's going to antagonize a lot of people, some for political reasons and others for reasons far more sinister, and before long, Renko's life will be in danger. The Polar Star is a large ship, but it's not that big and there are not that many places to hide. If he's going to complete his mission, Renko is going to have to be very careful and very, very lucky.
I really enjoyed this book a lot. Renko is a very intriguing and sympathetic protagonist, and there are a lot of other interesting and well-drawn characters as well. The mystery is compelling and there's a lot of tension throughout the story. Smith excels at describing the setting, which is at once bleak and beautiful. One also learns a great deal about the commercial fishing industry in this book; happily I'm having pork chops for dinner tonight.