Like so many mystery fans, I met Arkady Renko in 1981 when he first appeared in Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant, best-selling novel of suspense, Gorky Park. Seven more tales about the troubled Russian crime investigator have followed at intervals of three years or more. I’ve read nearly all of them; recently, I read and reviewed Three Stations. Tatiana is the latest.
Smith, a Bay Area resident (Marin County, I believe), has somehow managed to craft a series of compelling and all too credible stories that chronicle the descent of the Russian people from the tightly circumscribed lives they lived under Communism into the revived authoritarianism and kleptocracy of the Putin era.
Like so many fictional hero-detectives, Arkady Renko is an outlier, a brilliant performer among mediocrities and despised for his honesty on a police force that’s corrupt to its core. However, Renko is uniquely Russian. He’s melancholy to the edge of depression, fatalistic, cynical, and endlessly romantic. The son of a notoriously brutal general in the army, he seems to live for little more than to atone for his father’s sins.
In Tatiana, Renko stumbles upon the mysterious death of Tatiana Petrovna, a crusading Russian investigative reporter who gives her name to the book. Clearly, she is modeled on the tragic figure of Anna Politkovskaya, a fearless journalist who was assassinated in Moscow in 2006.
Working in the shadows of the police bureaucracy, barely tolerated by his boss, Renko pursues the truth behind Tatiana’s death with the help of his alcoholic sidekick, Victor Orlov; his adopted teenage son, Zhenya, a genius at chess who wants to run away to join the army; the famous old poet Maxim Dal; and his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Anya. As the plot unfolds, the leading figures of the Russian Mafia enter the scene. The story revolves around an interpreter’s notebook, written in a personal language and supposedly untranslatable.
Smith has a great gift for character. Every one of the actors in this complex and satisfying tale is sculpted with care and lingers in memory. Much of the dialogue is priceless — lively and clever without appearing contrived. Martin Cruz Smith is one of the premier crime writers of our age.