"Tatiana"

The cover of "Tatiana" by Martin Cruz Smith. (Simon & Schuster)

In 1938, Winston Churchill famously said in reference to Russia's possible involvement in the war in Europe, "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Seventy-five years later, Russia is a roiling stew of corruption, crime and capitalism. A perfect mix for Arkady Renko, Martin Cruz Smith's redoubtable investigator, now a senior investigator in the Moscow prosecutor's office.

Introduced to readers 32 years ago in "Gorky Park," Arkady has traveled a tumultuous road through the Cold War, glasnost, the fall of the Soviet Union and burgeoning capitalism in the seven books that preceded the newest one, "Tatiana." Along the way, he's been married, widowed and become foster father to Zhenya, a 17-year-old dropout and chess hustler, an "ugly duckling that did not change into a swan" and whose relationship with the investigator is tenuous at best. Arkady also has a bullet in his brain, where it can dislodge and kill him with the slightest provocation. Instead of causing him to be more careful, the threat has made Arkady more daring, a trait that serves him well in the investigation of three seemingly unrelated deaths.

The first, told in a brief but ominous prologue, is the murder of an interpreter that occurs along a stretch of sandy beach in Kaliningrad, some 600 miles from Moscow. A formerly closed city on the Baltic Sea, Kaliningrad "had a reputation of being ugly and crime ridden, a city that was an orphan or bastard or both."

The second is the execution-style murder of Grisha Grigorenko, a billionaire patron of Russian charities and the arts, member of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce but still a "glorified leg breaker" with interests in drugs, stolen arms and prostitution. Grisha's murder leads Arkady and his detective sergeant Victor Orlov to suspect a mob struggle for power may be close at hand. But their observation of Grisha's lavish funeral is interrupted by protesters, demonstrating about the cemetery's refusal to inter the body of investigative journalist Tatiana Petrovna, who fell from her sixth-floor apartment, a case Arkady's superiors are happy to label a suicide.

Aside from the involvement of Arkady's neighbor and "interim lover" Anya Rudenko in the demonstration, Tatiana's case catches the investigator's attention for one telling detail — neighbors heard the reporter scream shortly before she jumped, something Arkady's experience tells him rarely occurs in suicides. His skepticism increases when Tatiana's body can't be located at any of the city's morgues and then is supposedly found, only to be cremated against Arkady's express instructions.

By then the veteran investigator is compulsively listening to Tatiana's recorded notes on scandals at home and from distant wars: "Both sides have the same weapons … because our Soviet soldiers have traded their weapons for vodka. Here in Afghanistan, vodka is the great equalizer." Arkady soon learns that Tatiana was planning an even bigger exposé that involved a trip to her hometown of Kaliningrad shortly before she died; there she bought a coded notebook belonging to the slain interpreter that everyone is seeking. That includes Arkady's neighbor Anya, who wants to break into investigative reporting so badly that she's willing to flirt with the dead gangster's son, Alexi, a slick, Western-educated new generation of "entrepreneur" who has his own reasons for wanting that notebook.

As the suspects pile up and, inevitably, converge in the various investigations, Arkady's connection to the enigma that is Tatiana Petrovna takes a turn reminiscent of classic film mysteries even as he finds a way to reach the disaffected Zheny through solving the riddle of the interpreter's notebook. Yet even after the case is solved and the dust settles, there is a palpable sense of foreboding that Arkady's days are numbered: "Did you know I have a bullet in my brain?" he asks an assassin at one point. "Do you know what that does to you? Can you imagine? Like a second hand on a watch, just waiting to make one last tick. One tick and everything goes black."

Let's hope not. "Tatiana," inspired in part by the mysterious death of real-life Russian investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, is one of the finest entries in a series that is as much social commentary as it is crime fiction, an accomplishment that only a few writers in this or any genre can hope to achieve.

Woods has written four mysteries in the Charlotte Justice series and edited several anthologies.


Tatiana

Martin Cruz Smith
Simon & Schuster: 293 pp.; $25.99