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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, January 11, 2014

New Arkady Renko Novel Finds Martin Cruz Smith at His Very Best

By Martin Cruz Smith
305 pages
ISBN: 1439140219
( Simon & Schuster; Nov. 12, 2013)
(eBook by Simon and Schuster Digital Sales, Inc.)

I have admired Martin Cruz Smith's Russian Militsia Detective Arkady Renko since I first picked up a copy of Gorky Park in the early 1980s.  Renko is a marvelous character. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, count me as sincere: when I wrote my supernatural crime tale, "Witch's Hat Trick," I tried to emulate the dry, ironic tone that Smith brings to his Renko novels.

Renko is a skeptic and cynic who refuses to allow gangsters, corrupt officials or crooked cops prevent him from completing his investigations and fashioning some rough form of justice for the perpetrators of crimes -- though it always seems the biggest criminals, including the ones serving in official positions -- manage to slip off his hook. Such is life in the People's Republic of Oligarchs, modern day Russia.

Renko is bleakly funny, romantic and tough enough to survive a bullet lodged in his brain -- at least, so far. What's not to like?

So I am pleased to note that Smith's latest Renko novel, Tatiana, finds our senior investigator once again working on the side of truth and righteousness against bad policemen, even worse organized crime figures and the inertia of his own country's criminal justice machinery.

Martin Cruz Smith is in top form in his latest Arkady Renko adventure
(Photo courtesy of www.martincruzsmith.com) 

The plot of Tatiana is complicated, but not unduly so: Tatiana Petrovna, "a troublemaker to the end," is an investigative reporter known for digging up scandals that the authorities would prefer remain buried. She has died as the result of a fall from her apartment window. Her friends believe she was murdered; the official verdict is suicide.

Renko has no opinion one way or the other, but becomes involved in a highly personal investigation of her death after he inadvertently comes across a collection of cassette tape recordings on which she has left notes from her various journalistic investigations.

Mesmerized by her voice, he begins an inquiry that leads him to a conspiracy between military officials and organized crime bosses to rake massive amounts off a government contract to repair an all-but-useless Russian submarine by sending it to a shipyard in China for refitting -- a breach not only of the law, but of official Russian security.

Renko encounters the usual official and unofficial impediments to his probe: he is forced to solve the opaque code of an interpreter who was murdered after facilitating the multi-national meetings where the plot was hatched; the investigator's life -- and those of the people closest to him -- are threatened; and at one point, he is forced to join a bicycle tour of Kaliningrad to avoid capture, torture and elimination by those who would stop his investigation.

There are references to Tolstoy and Pushkin, short digressions into Russian military history and enough inside knowledge about the way Russian institutions operate in the Twenty First century to leave a reader sad and depressed. 

The novel is full of intriguing characters: Maxim, a fading poet and Tatiana's former lover who seems intent on misguiding Renko for reasons that are unclear; Renko's live-in lover Anya, a would-be photojournalist who engages in a dalliance with Alexi, the heir and successor to a dead mobster; Zhenya, the teenage chess hustler whose father was killed while trying to murder Renko and who now uneasily shares an apartment with the Militsia investigator; and Abdul, a Chechen rebel turned automobile smuggler and unlikely hip-hop star. All of them strut and fret their hour upon the stage in the shadow of the sour pessimism and hopelessness that seems to be the birthright of every Russian.

There is a satisfying conclusion in which many loose ends are tied up, but not so thoroughly that we won't wait eagerly for the next Renko book.

Not only is Renko a fine character, but Smith is a fine writer: Reading one of his novels is like an Easter egg hunt where the reader finds a precious egg -- one of those jewel-crusted FabergĂ© numbers created for long-dead Tsars -- on almost every page.  

And Tatiana is Smith at the top of his form.  I can't recommend it enough.


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