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GIJON, Spain (Reuters Life!) - U.S. author Martin Cruz Smith has just finished writing the latest in a series of novels about Moscow Detective Arkady Renko, who was played by William Hurt in the 1983 film version of "Gorky Park."
Called "Three Stations," a common name for a main Moscow thoroughfare for millions of commuters on the metro and railway, it is due out in August and delves into the underground world of the legions of homeless children in the Russian capital.
Since Renko's first outing in 1981, the character has witnessed the sweeping changes which transformed the former Soviet Union into modern Russia.
Cruz Smith has also written novels about gypsies, vampire bats and one, "Rose," deals with women working at the coal face in 19th century Wigan, in northwestern England.
Before taking up fiction writing, he tried studying criminology, journalism, selling ice cream and painting, among other occupations.
He spoke to Reuters on the sidelines of the Semana Negra (Noir Week) crime-writing festival in Gijon, northern Spain:
Q: Tell us about the latest Renko novel.
A: It begins with a baby being kidnapped, which is pretty rare. People generally dump their kids.
They have their vampire stories, that Americans come and take children, and maybe boil them when they get home, treat them badly, and part of it is to counter American propaganda that all these children in the shelters are badly treated or abused.
I've been to one Russian shelter in particular a number of times over the years, and a more caring staff could not be found.
Q: How do these kids live?
A: They form groups to survive, they live on the street, they beg, they steal, petty thieves, they go to shelters sometimes, they go to the back of restaurants, get scraps, but the numbers are amazing. The last official estimate I saw was well over 40,000 kids in Moscow.
Many of them are runaways, who don't want to go to shelters, and would never go home. At home they were abused and the amount of alcohol that is consumed at home, is daunting.
The fact of these kids is an embarrassment to the Russians and a danger to them, too. Even (Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin says they're a danger.
Q: Is it fair to say "Three Stations" is a rough part of Moscow?
A: If you don't know what you're doing there, you shouldn't be there. During the day it's small thievery, the violent time is at night. I've been walking around with a detective, I've seen gang wars. He was protecting me, so he didn't have the wherewithal to take on a mugging right in front of us.
Q: How many Renko books have there been now?
A: It's the 7th or 8th, I don't count them.
Q: How old is Renko now? In Gorky Park his father was a World War II hero. In 2010, he'd have to be in his nineties, at least.
A: He ages at a different rate. The fact that it takes me three years to write about what happens next doesn't mean he's the same age as me. I would say he ages at approximately a ratio of two years to every three of ours.
I've had to change some of the childhood memories, because it was stretching him beyond any elastic possibilities. But in an earlier book, I mentioned that the general was very much an older man. I try to play as fair as possible."
Q: Will there be another Renko novel?
A: Oh yes. Not the next one, but the one after.
Q: Can you tell us about the next novel?
A: No. What I like about these books is the humor in them. The books get blacker, and they get funnier.
Q: Why Russia?
A: Because I saw that I could easily sell a book about the reconstruction of the face of the police, in Moscow.
And then as I got involved, everything changed. I had contracted to write a book about an American detective in Moscow. What a stupid idea! Why in the world do Russia through American eyes? What this needs is a Russian pair of eyes and Russian characters.
And that is where I ran into an altercation with American publishers who insisted on having an American hero. It took me years to free the book up, then more years passed before I could write it.
So it's a bit like playing roulette when you're not very good at it. You think you're very smart stacking all your chips on one number.
Q: How successful do think you've been in portraying Russia through Russian eyes?
A: I think astonishingly so. I met people in Moscow who read Gorky Park in "samizdat," in other words, somebody had typed out the entire book on carbon, so it was important enough to read that at a time when possession would get you a couple of years in prison.
So that's a curious type of accolade, but a Russian type of accolade.
Reporting by Martin Roberts, editing by Paul Cascisato