I really enjoyed the first two books written by Boris StarlingMessiah and Storm — and I was expecting more of the same in Vodka, especially after one of the reviewers compared Starling to Martin Cruz Smith, obviously since the spectacular crime novel Gorky Park was also set in Moscow. However, for the first 300 pages of Vodka, crime took a backseat to an unlikely romance between American banker Alice Liddell and Russian mafia kingpin — and politician — Lev (no last name given). Somehow, the beautiful Liddell falls for the nearly seven foot tall tattooed not very handsome member of the Russian vory. In addition to the romance, the story also focuses on the Russian economy following the end of communism as Liddell is hired to privatize Lev’s Vodka distillery, Red October. The book dragged for me for those 300 pages and I considered not finishing it. However, after several attempts, I finally continued — and finished — the book and I’m glad I did. Things pick up in the last 300 pages as crime takes front seat to finance as Estonian detective Juku Irk tracks the killer of several young orphans. If you like reading about business and the economy, this book will explain those concepts from the Russian perspective, where the black market under communism may have given them a better understanding of capitalism than those of us who have lived under it for our entire lives. If you like vodka, this book is a guide to the myriad different types and flavors of the drink that is the fabric of Russia. And finally, if you love crime — and especially international crime — this book provides a glimpse into the struggles of fighting crime in a country where the police receive little or no equipment, resources or pay. Things are even worse for Irk, who is not considered a Russian by most of those he meets. Hopefully, Starling will revive the Irk character in a future novel, similar to Arkady Renko appearing in a subsequent Smith novel.

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