Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith
Russia is one of the most interesting places to live so long as you’re not one of the people actually living there. The reason being the lack of money and resources. Of course, when the final phase of socialism is realised in the perfect government being created by the current leadership, everything will be better. There will be no more thefts and pilfering. Corruption will be at an end. Why? Because everything worth stealing will already have been taken and there will be no money left with which to bribe any officials still alive. Some might see this as an example of Russian humour, reflecting the reality the temporary shortages they endure are likely to become permanent under the next political system. But that’s to misunderstand the Russian temperament. Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith (Simon & Schuster, 2013) is about a man with a bullet in his head. If he gets into a room with too many people agreeing with the party bosses, he could die by nodding. The bullet, you see, could move from its currently nonfatal to a more fatal position. Such a man begins this new medical regime by fearing death. Since he could die if he moves, he prefers not to move. Then he experiments a little and finds, to his surprise, he still does not die. This encourages him. By the time this book begins, he’s convinced himself he’s invulnerable. That no matter what he does, he will not die. This makes him a true Russian. His fatalism is immaculate in its conception and execution. And, of course, as a police officer charged with investigating criminals and corrupt politicians, he’s at risk of execution just by breathing.
This is the eighth book to feature Arkady Renko. Now in his fifties, this somewhat iconic hero is ageing but with no sign of letting up on his deathwish lifestyle. This time, an investigative journalist who was loved by all who featured in the articles she wrote, is said to have committed suicide by jumping off her balcony. That her body has disappeared is not unusual in such low-profile cases. Mortuaries never pay much attention anyway. Fortunately, when her body is later found, it’s identified by smartphone — her sister looks at the photograph sent to her — and then it’s immediately cremated (this saved space in the mortuary and made sure no-one could find it again). So that’s an end of it. With no body, there’s no case for Renko to investigate. So he carefully opens a file on the murder of an interpreter. Tatiana went to the scene of his death and bought a notebook from someone there. Now she’s dead and Renko has the notebook which would be a good step forward except no-one can read it. In fact, it’s written in a completely nonstandard code. Now all he has to do is stay alive long enough to solve whatever case it is he’s investigating. Did I mention the young man he’s informally adopted steals the notebook. This makes him something of a target just as Renko goes off to a distant outpost of Russia. It’s a tough world no matter who you are nor what your age.
In every way this is a rather delightfully dark book. Although almost everyone apart from Renko is either incompetent or corrupt or a criminal armed to the teeth with death-dealing weaponry, we know truth will be a shield to those who challenge the dishonest system. The fact this particular piece of corruption is on an epic scale actually means some unexpected moments of humour emerge as we leave Moscow behind in our search for amber (that’s Russian for gold). This inverts the Scandinavian crime/thriller model which has alcoholic, deeply depressed men staggering from one existential crisis to another as they solve murders, human trafficking and other disturbing crimes. Martin Cruz Smith uses taut and economical prose to describe a deeply depressed society, often soaked in vodka or other alcoholic liquids, which lurches from one crisis to another as one of the few good men does something. What that something is may not always shed any real light on the crimes of the society, but at least he’s making the effort and we can only sit back and applaud (even though the final confrontation is not very plausible). Smith’s health is suffering as he ages. Despite this, he’s produced as good a piece of writing as you could hope to find. Hopefully he’s got a few more books like Tatiana inside him.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.