Martin Cruz Smith has written a number of fine standalone novels, among them “Stallion Gate,” an atmospheric thriller set in Los Alamos, N.M., at the dawn of the atomic age, and “December 6,” an incisive portrait of Japan poised on the brink of a disastrous war. But his signature achievement is — and is likely to remain — the Arkady Renko series, books that use the medium of crime fiction to explore the violent, volatile society of contemporary Russia.
The first of these, the 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 continue to reflect those changes with wit, style and authority. At the same time, they dramatize the ways in which certain characteristic elements, such as endemic bureaucratic incompetence, never really change.
As “Tatiana” begins, two crucial events have taken place. The first is the execution-style murder of Grisha Grigorenko, one of the most prominent of the outlaw billionaires who have set up shop in Moscow. Grisha’s death paves the way for a potentially bloody war of succession that will encompass Alexi, his son and heir apparent, and a colorful trio of homegrown mafiosi with criminal empires of their own. The second event is the “suicide” of crusading journalist Tatiana Petrovna, who apparently fell — or was pushed — from the sixth-floor balcony of her Moscow apartment complex. Tatiana, whose true fate is revealed in the latter stages of the novel, is based, in part, on Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist and human rights activist who wrote extensively on the Chechen conflict and who was shot to death, by persons still unknown, in 2006. Tatiana is a tangible presence throughout, lending the narrative much of its moral and emotional substance.
Authorities have ruled Tatiana’s death a suicide, thus eliminating the need for an investigation. Arkady, always out of step with whatever regime happens to hold power, disagrees. Assisted by his loyal but profoundly alcoholic comrade, Sgt. Victor Orlov, he mounts an investigation of his own. That investigation leads from Moscow to the Baltic port of Kaliningrad, which boasts the highest crime rate of any city in Russia and connects directly with the unsolved murder of Grisha Grigorenko.
The key to these overlapping mysteries is a notebook left behind by a translator murdered on the beach outside Kaliningrad. That notebook, a heavily encrypted record of a clandestine meeting attended by Moscow’s preeminent criminals, leads Arkady to a second clandestine meeting and a series of climactic revelations. These revelations, at once tawdry and shocking, commonplace and lethal, offer a business-as-usual account of corruption and greed on a steadily increasing scale. They encapsulate Smith’s ongoing portrait of the freebooter mentality so prevalent in the new, post-communist Russia.
Smith is that uncommon phenomenon: a popular and well-regarded crime novelist who is also a writer of real distinction. His prose is clear, precise and unobtrusively elegant, and his sense of character is unerring. Like the other books in this series, “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, burned-out police officers and journalists — such as the admirable and wholly credible Tatiana — with an inescapable sense of mission and a belief in the possibility of a kinder, more civilized Russia. Then, of course, there is Arkady. Over the years, he has developed into one of the most appealing characters in crime fiction. 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. He is a hero perfectly suited to his time, place and circumstances.
Finally, and perhaps most important, “Tatiana” showcases Smith’s ability to convey the frustrating, frequently absurd nature of daily life in a fractured, tragic and traumatized country. Taken as a whole, the Arkady Renko series offers something unique in modern literature: an evolving vision of a complex society struggling, often futilely, to rise above the ruins of its own calamitous history.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry Into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”