Current reviews
  Reviews by title
  Reviews by author

  Contact Onyx

  Discussion forum


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 from the 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 crucial moments. 

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.

Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2013. All rights reserved