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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith

Simon & Schuster, 306 pages, $25.99 (release date 11/12/13)

Give the man an Edgar, already! Okay?

Martin Cruz Smith has written many books, been nominated a bucketful of times for an Edgar, won a Gold Dagger, won a couple of Hammetts. He is one of the best crime story writers around, innovative and provocative.

Gorky Park was Smith's first Arkady Renko book, released in 1981, at a time when Russia was still the Soviet Union and American tourists had not yet begun to pour into Moscow. How the heck did American author Martin Cruz Smith know enough about what went on behind the Soviet veil to write a book starring a Moscow police detective? It was a fabulous, intriguing book.

Tatiana is the eighth Renko book and it is a fabulous, intriguing book as well.

Russia has changed considerably in the 30+ years since maverick investigator Renko first made his appearance. The Renko books reflect the changes in time, even if Renko himself does not appear to be 30 years older. He is described like this: "Arkady was a thin man with lank dark hair who looked incomplete without a cigarette." Now he works for a special prosecutor who dislikes him. His job is dark but his job title is whimsical: Senior Investigator for Very Important Cases.

Renko is joined by two other regulars: Victor Orlov, his alcoholic partner, and Zhenya, Renko's 17-year-old, chess-wizard ward.

Renko and Orlov primarily are following the reshuffling of power within the underworld after one of the most notorious crime lords is murdered. Will Alexi Grigorenko succeed his father in the "business"? Renko's neighbor/lover Anya Rudenko, a reporter, is also following the events and, more specifically, Alexi, possibly in a more personal way than Renko would like.

In addition, Renko has assigned himself a case that seems simple and underwhelming: locate the misplaced body of investigative reporter Tatiana Petrovna in the morgue. Although Tatiana has been declared a suicide victim, Renko's interest is piqued by a witness' statement that she could hear Tatiana scream as she fell from her balcony. In Renko's experience, suicides who leap from buildings die silently.

Tatiana "attacked corruption among politicians and police. Her favorite targets were the former KGB who dwelled like bats in the Kremlin." Needless to say, she had many enemies.

A mysterious notebook appears among Tatiana's effects. It is filled with symbols and seems incomprehensible. We know from the prologue that the notebook belongs to a murdered translator who was working at a business deal between people who are Russian and Chinese. The notebook makes its way from Tatiana to her editor, from the editor to Anya, from Anya to Renko, and finally from Renko to Zhenya, who has stolen it to hold as a bargaining chip to make Renko give his permission for Zhenya to join the army.

Everything eventually and intricately swirls together. At least one person is not surprised at the complexity of events. Orlov says about his partner, "'That will be on your tombstone, "Things Got Complicated."'"

Despite the introduction of many characters and the unlikely twining of the cases, Smith masterfully conducts his symphony of crime, including some devilish twists in the plot. Smith also shows us a depressing vision of Russia, most searingly exemplified by something Renko sees in his travels, a "Frankenstein's monster of a building," a decaying government office building that has never been occupied because of engineering errors. This is Russia now: half-built, unstable, not functioning, open to corruption.

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