Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith

3 Mins read

It’s over 30 years and six books since Arkady Renko first appeared in Gorky Park. In his exquisite first mystery, he swam against the current of Soviet corruption attempting to solve three Moscow murders. Today, the crimson of communism has turned a rustier shade of red but the graft smells just as pungent.

This is Putin’s Russia, and the book opens with an interpreter cycling for pleasure on the outskirts of Kaliningrad, the Baltic port that didn’t officially exist in Soviet times. A man driving a butchers van pulls up and demands the interpreter’s notes. Refusing, the poor cyclist is dragged into the van never to be heard from again.

Cut to Moscow where Arkady Renko is an unwelcome guest at the funeral of a Grisha Grigorenko, a major mafia figure. The billionaire was shot close at range and his son, smooth-haired Alexi, is poised to take over an empire he just isn’t equipped to defend. Arkady’s next stop is a demonstration that’s being attended by his neighbour and sometimes lover Anya, a journalist. Writers and poets have taken to the streets to protest the killing and torture of Russian journalists – in particular that of Tatiana Petrovna, who fearlessly reported on corrruption. Did she really throw herself from her apartment’s balcony? Renko doesn’t have much to say about press freedom but he does believe in justice. When both the skinheads and riot police wade into the protest our hero gets pretty badly thumped.

Renko wants to investigate Tatiana’s death. Simply because the city’s morgues have lost her body, the prosecutor allows the detective to look into it. Perhaps it’s a way of getting someone who is too driven for his own good out of the way. Renko finds out that Tatiana’s sister lives in Kaliningrad and whilst up there on a visit, the dead journalist acquired an interpreter’s notebook. In Moscow, her apartment has been tossed – somebody wants that notebook back, and badly.

It turns out that Anya now has the notebook. Renko has become so obsessed with the dead woman’s case that Anya is jealous, but she gives him the book. It remains a Macguffin throughout the story. Written in a strange series of pictograms that nobody can understand, later it is stolen by Renko’s adoptive son Zhenya. As ransom for the notebook, he wants Renko to sign parental consent forms allowing him to join the army. Zhenya has no idea of the kind of risk he’s taking.

Martin Cruz Smith’s writing is tight and yet poetic. Russia has changed a lot since Gorky Park. In that book, Renko occasionally ate well – caviar, blinis, smoked fish and even champagne. Today, his meals are mundane: something greasy, bread and vodka. The atmosphere in Moscow has changed too, not only because this book is set in the summer. When someone disappears, people are just as matter-of-fact about it. The difference is now is that the threat is far more random. Mafia/business interests are opportunistic, whereas the KGB seemed a more omnipotent foe.

Rougher and battle-scarred, Renko seems less dignified than he was all those years ago. There’s no journey of self-realisation here – none is needed. He knows he exists on the margin, with poets and journalists the natural allies of an integrity-driven investigator. He doesn’t need to know the measure of his quarry either. A Chechen rapper running rackets, mafia crown princes, hairy old gangsters, corrupt police and, of course, assassins – they’re more unpredictable than the apparatchiks or KGB. Amazing plot twists and astounding revelations come to the fore rather than philosophical observations. Major news stories – going back to the Kursk submarine disaster and Dubrovka Theatre hostage taking – are nicely woven in, providing a commentary on modern Russia as a backdrop.

Tatiana is a superb continuation of Arkady Renko’s battle for justice in a country at odds with its own history, with progress and with fairness and freedom. The last section of the book takes place in Kaliningrad where Renko makes massive discoveries about Tatiana Petrovna and her investigations. The story turns sharply, but then pushes itself off again so languidly you’ll feel as though you’re there with the detective pedaling bikes, ducking for cover and boating silently across a Baltic sea port at night. You’ll be caught up in the motion of his quest, perhaps even flicking back a few pages now and again to check that what you think just happened actually did, then racing forward again to read on. Spasiba, Mr Smith, your prose is as lucid as ever.

Simon & Schuster

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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