Tatiana

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I've long enjoyed Martin Cruz Smith's novels featuring Arkady Renko, the Russian detective. He's not exactly prolific; eight Renko novels, starting with Gorky Park in 1981. (Compare with Sue Grafton, who's knocked out 23 Kinsey Millhone books since 1982.) But the books are worth waiting for. Renko's life over the past thirty years has followed that of Mother Russia, from Communist totalitarianism to heady liberation, to today's corrupt kleptocracy. Renko endures it all with bemusement and mordant dark humor; his only desire is to bring a little bit of justice to the evildoers when and where he can.

Here, things kick off with three deaths: (1) a translator is biking on the lonely, off-season Curonian Spit in Kaliningrad when a killer in a butcher's van does him in; (2) a famous Russian mobster is gunned down by perpetrators unknown; (3) a hard-hitting female journalist, Tatiana Petrovna, apparently falls to her death from her apartment balcony.

These are all seemingly unrelated, but (of course) they aren't. Renko is especially drawn to the death of the journalist. The authorities want to write Tatiana off as a suicide, but witnesses report hearing a scream. Tatiana has been a thorn in the side of the powerful for years, daring to report stories at odds with the "official" versions, exposing incompetence, arrogance, and corruption. So there's no limit to possible suspects.

Renko is his usual dogged self, picking up unlikely clues, and following seemingly hopeless leads. Especially noteworthy is the translator's notebook, which apparently passed through Tatiana's hands before winding up in Renko's possession. Unfortunately, it's all in a private code, full of mysterious symbols in the translator's private language. Can it be puzzled out? Enter the lad Zenhya, the semi-feral chess prodigy to who Renko became a sorta-guardian in a previous book. He can see connections and make logical leaps unavailable to lesser mortals. But that (unfortunately) puts him in danger himself. Can he save himself and Renko too?

I really enjoyed the book. You can learn a lot, painlessly, about Russia simply by reading this series. Much is set in Kaliningrad, a Russian outclave on the Baltic sea, nestled between Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. A particularly amusing/depressing bit concerns the Kaliningrad "Monster", officially the "House of Soviets", widely thought to be the ugliest building in the world. Construction started in the 1960s, and was abandoned in the 1980s, and it remains unfinished. It was painted light blue in 2005 when Putin visited; according to Renko's guide, this was to make it as invisible as possible.