'Tatiana' offers slice of Russian lowlife

"Tatiana" by Martin Cruz Smith (S&S, November 2013)

"Tatiana" by Martin Cruz Smith (S&S, November 2013) (Credit: Handout)

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TATIANA, by Martin Cruz Smith. Simon & Schuster, 292 pp., $25.99.

Martin Cruz Smith has written a number of fine stand-alone novels, but his signature achievement is the Arkady Renko series, books that use crime fiction to explore the violent, volatile society of contemporary Russia.

The first of these, international bestseller "Gorky Park," appeared in 1981, almost 10 years before the collapse of Soviet communism. The eighth and latest entry is "Tatiana," and it is one of Smith's strongest. Much has happened in the 30-plus years since "Gorky Park" -- social and political upheaval, war in Chechnya, the emergence of a brutal class of criminal billionaires -- and Smith's stories reflect those changes with wit, style and authority. At the same time, they dramatize the ways in which some things, such as endemic bureaucratic incompetence, never change.

As "Tatiana" begins, two crucial events have taken place. The first is the execution-style murder of Grisha Grigorenko, a prominent outlaw billionaire, whose death paves the way for a potentially bloody war of succession. The second event is the death of crusading journalist Tatiana Petrovna, who fell -- or was pushed -- from the sixth-floor balcony of her Moscow apartment. (Tatiana is based, in part, on Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist and activist who wrote extensively on the Chechen conflict and who was shot to death, by persons still unknown, in 2006.)

Authorities have ruled Tatiana's death a suicide, eliminating the need for an investigation. Arkady, always out of step with whoever's in power, disagrees. Assisted by loyal but alcoholic comrade Sgt. Victor Orlov, he starts an investigation of his own.

The key to these overlapping mysteries is a notebook left behind by a translator murdered on the beach outside the Baltic port of Kaliningrad. That notebook, a heavily encrypted record of a clandestine meeting attended by Moscow's pre-eminent criminals, leads Arkady to a series of climactic revelations.

"Tatiana" is populated by a gallery of vivid and varied personalities from all levels of Russian society. These include artists and thugs, poets and bureaucratic functionaries. Then, of course, there is Arkady. At once cynical and romantic, he is a quietly persistent figure who loves, loathes and understands the country that has broken his heart so often.

Taken as a whole, the series offers something unique in modern literature: an evolving vision of a complex society.

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