A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review by Mark Johnson:


MIKHAIL CHERNYONOK – Losing Bet. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. Dial Press, hardcover, 1984. Russian title: Stavka Na Proigrysh, 1979.

   To many American readers, Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park was a curiosity — a murder mystery set in Moscow. But since World War II, the mystery has been a popular form in the Soviet Union, and novels by writers such as Vil Vladiminovich Lipatov, the brother team of Arkady and Georgy Alexandrovich Vainer, and Julian Semyonovich Semyonov are widely read.

   Most of these mysteries would not appeal to Western readers; they are long-winded and parochial. But Mikhail Chernyonok’s Losing Bet was an excellent choice for translation.

   A young woman has fallen — or been pushed — from the balcony of an apartment in Novosibirsk, a city of a million inhabitants in remote western Siberia. Detective Anton Birukov is in charge of the case. The woman, Sanya, is the ex-wife of the apartment’s tenant, Yuri Demensky, but he claims he has not seen her for years.

   In the apartment are found the fingerprints of a well-known professional criminal, Vasya Sipeniatin, but his specialty has always been cunning, not violence. Other suspects include Ovchinnikov, a self-styled ladies’ man who borrowed Demensky’s apartment for romantic liaisons; Zarvantsev, a talented artist who has “gone commercial”; and Stepnadze, a railroad conductor with a lucrative career on the side, illegal speculation in hard-to-find books.

   All had known Sanya, but who had killed her, and what was she doing at Demensky’s? As Birukov and his aides methodically track down clues from the bars and theaters of Novosibirsk to the resorts of the Black Sea, they begin to see a conspiracy of bribery and corruption that has led to one murder and will lead to more.

   Much of the appeal of Losing Bet lies in its incisive but affectionate portrait of working-class Russians at work, play, and love. The police work is without frills. Aside from the interesting structural differences between Soviet and Western police forces, Birukov’s crime-solving techniques would seem familiar, and sound, to American readers of police procedurals.

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   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.