Onyx reviews: Tatiana by
Martin Cruz Smith
Welcome to the new Russia, same as the old Russia. It's hard to imagine that the Moscow tourism bureau thinks much of Martin
Cruz Smith's books featuring Senior Investigator Arkady Renko. They portray the former
capital of the
USSR as a tired, crime-ridden and impoverished place, eastern Europe's Mexico
"run like an Arab bazaar." In Russia, history can move forward,
sideways or disappear altogether. Corruption is rife and daily life seems joyless.
Evidence from crimes is swept under the rug. No one cares if murders are solved.
Moscow is a vacation resort compared to the lost (or non-existent) city of Kaliningrad.
The Baltic port, formerly called Koenigsberg when it was part of Germany, was
bombed flat during WWII and Stalin forced the entire population to leave. He
repopulated it with Russians, but no one will admit they are from Kaliningrad.
They call themselves Koenigs instead.
It's the perfect setting for an international meeting involving various
criminal elements. A translator makes the fatal
mistake of recording the dialog in a notebook, which leads to his murder while he
was cycling on
beaches famous for their amber. The notebook by itself, however, is an enigma.
Translators create their own form of shorthand, incomprehensible even to the
best cryptographers because the key to the code is the translator's life. Joseph
Bonnafos's book is filled with what looks like the doodles someone makes while talking
on the phone.
The notebook finds its way to Tatiana Petrovna, a controversial investigative
journalist inspired by the real-life murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya. A day later, she's dead. She apparently leapt
balcony of her apartment, located in a mostly abandoned highrise that she was attempting
to keep from being demolished by a real estate developer who wanted to convert
the area into a shopping mall. With the official cause of death
listed as suicide, Arkady cannot investigate. However, after her body goes
missing before an autopsy can be performed,
he convinces his bosses to let him look into the theft of human remains instead, a cover story
that allows him to rummage around indiscriminately.
When mobster Grisha
Grigorenko is killed, he's given a state funeral—he's also a member of the
Chamber of Commerce and a public benefactor. Meanwhile, his former allies and enemies
grapple behind the scenes to fill the power void. The heir apparent's life is in
danger on principle.
All roads lead to Kaliningrad, which was Grigorenko's seat of power. While
Arkady follows clues and makes enemies like only
he can, Zhenya,
the chess hustler who Arkady has taken under his wing, who is now badgering
Arkady to allow him to join the army, tries his hand at cracking
the code, with the assistance of the only player he's ever met who can best
him—an attractive young woman whose grandfather is a painter who only
produces portraits of Stalin.
Arkady is also assisted by the poet Maxim Dal, who knows his way around
Kaliningrad, and acquires a love interest to supplant the on-again/off-again
relationship he's had with Anya Rudenko, who lives across the hall from him. His
sidekick, Detective Sergeant
Victor Orlov, doesn't think the investigation is serious enough to stop drinking, but he's around to help Arkady at
Though Petrovna is presumed to have committed suicide, she speaks to Arkady
through the numerous cassettes she left behind containing notes for the
stories she's covered over the years, often delving into incidents the
government would rather she left alone. The versions she recounts are
significantly different than the official accounts. It's no big surprise that
someone may have decided she went too far. Arkady is putting his life at risk
for a lost cause, but he has shrapnel from a bullet in his brain that could
shift at any moment and a newly acquired punctured lung, so he fears little that
anyone else can do to him. He lives his life like it's the second hand on a
watch waiting to make one final tick.
There's little joy to be had in the Renko books, but Tatiana ends on a
comparatively high note for Renko. He's in a good place in his relationships and
at apparent peace. That can only mean bad things on the horizon, but that's a
good thing for fans of Smith's novels.
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