Review: Tatiana, By Martin Cruz Smith

Having survived the KGB and a bullet to the head, detective Renko is going strong

Martin Cruz Smith’s Muscovite Arkady Renko has long been the most persuasive of contemporary detectives.

Where others have alcoholism, Arkady’s misfortune is to live in contemporary Russia and try to serve the cause of justice. He has done so from Brezhnev to Putin, obdurately dooming himself to a junior rank, rewarded with beatings, a bullet lodged in his head and the death of his wife from medical incompetence.

 To this he opposes what the poet Louis Simpson called “the poor man’s nerve-tic, irony”. Renko has every reason to drink, but he leaves the really committed self-destruction to his equally stubborn partner, Orlov. Renko has survived the KGB, an Arctic trawler, Chernobyl, the attempted coup against Yeltsin and the ingeniously sustained malice of his corrupt superiors. How much life can be left in him as a character?

Tatiana, the eighth book in the series, is one of the most economical and polished. Cruz Smith can give us a landscape and a milieu with a crisp matter-of-factness that poets would envy. The Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad is the site for his adventures this time – a brutalist wreck built on the bombed ruins of Immanuel Kant’s Konigsberg. Thus is the great philosopher of reason rewarded. Renko is there, unsupported, to investigate the death of the journalist Tatiana Petrovna, alleged to have thrown herself from the window of a Moscow apartment wanted for redevelopment by gangsters. The death coincides with an interregnum at the top of the criminal food chain. Whatever Petrovna was investigating will decide who wins.

While Cruz Smith’s materials are often sombre and the reader can only respond with horror to the matter-of-fact venality of those on the make, the hoods and politicians and hangers-on, his touch is light. He lets a cold wind blow through a darkness occasionally illuminated by courage or luck. He can make tension rise through the page like a shark’s fin: the murder of an interpreter early on has an awful practicality to it, along with the eeriness of a folktale.

Renko is – he has to be – a good investigator. A dog turd in a Kaliningrad vegetable patch leads him to the unravelling of one half of the mystery. Back in Moscow, Zhenya, the moody young chess hustler whom Renko has unofficially adopted, puzzles over the private visual code in the dead interpreter’s notebook. Everything seems to hinge on the yacht Natasha Goncharova, moored in Moscow by a leading young criminal. The whole thing is at once grim and funny and beautifully done. While there is Renko there is hope, if you look very hard.

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