My daughter once asked me why I read so much crime fiction. I forget what I told her, but the correct answer came to me today: It’s not the genre I love so much, but the certain favorite authors who work so well within it. More importantly, it’s the certain recurring characters who have come to seem like old friends.
Which is why I’m reading Tatiana, Martin Cruz Smith’s latest novel featuring the laconic Russian investigator Arkady Renko. When I saw some weeks ago that Smith had written another Renko novel, I actually preordered it. For the record, I never preorder anything.
I first met Arkady Renko in Gorky Park, in 1982 or so. I still consider it among the finest crime novels ever written. More than 30 years later, Renko is still in Moscow, which is no longer Soviet but just as brutal and corrupt as ever. Maybe more so, what with Putin’s Kremlin on one side and desperate billionaires on the other. He’s investigating the supposed suicide of a crusading journalist. Of course it’s not suicide. Now her remains are missing, and it appears to Renko that the murders of a criminal tycoon and a Swiss translator are somehow related.
That’s enough about the plot. With Smith, the plot is always a bit murky and, really, of only secondary importance. The real enjoyment comes from Renko’s interactions with the denizens of post-Soviet Russia: the street people and the oligarchs and the corrupt bureaucrats who can never simply tell him what he wants to know. Smith’s great talent is rendering all of these characters — and modern Russia — in the full three dimensions. The worst aren’t completely evil and the best aren’t completely good. The dialog is as sharp as you’ll find anywhere. (I’d add an example here, but I can’t figure out how to highlight blocks of text on my new Kindle Paperwhite™. And I’m too lazy to type it.)
Speaking of favorite writers, Ian Rankin is another I always buy without reading the reviews. His character John Rebus is the Arkady Renko of Scotland, in many ways. Rebus will appear again in Saints of the Shadow Bible, due out in January.