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Another fine mess

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Tatiana: An Arkady Renko Novel - Martin Cruz Smith Martin Cruz Smith has written a slew of fine novels which reveal his fluency with distinct narrative voices. From the industrial baroque of late 19th-century Britain (Rose) to Oppenheimer's atomic labs (the underrated Stallion Gate) to the days right before Pearl Harbor in Japan (December 6), Smith meticulously shapes each propulsive story to showcase a style emergent from (and evocative of) each specific setting. That capacity for language underpins his most famous creation: the detective series centered around Russian detective Arkady Renko.

Smith writes solid mysteries in the procedural vein: the pointillist's eye for detail has the feel of social realism but produces, at each novel's end, the 'sudden' emergence of the full picture, the crime's perfect solution. But rarely resolution, particularly with Renko, a man unsettled and discontented to the very core. He is occasionally left adrift by the revelation of plots and murders, sometimes safer and with some new relationship, but an unease persists.

That discomfort is a by-product of Smith's cultural critique. This series is often justly touted for its cultural acuity, his insights into Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. This latest--Tatiana--continues his developing portrait of the country's evolution, from the entropy of the Soviet collapse through more recent "democratic" upheavals. As in the previous outing, Renko tussles with the thuggish underbelly of Putinland, the deep tangles of State corruption and all manner of global crime. Big money seems to be circling around behind the mysterious death of journalist Tatiana Petrovna. Renko's investigation takes him to Kaliningrad, and allows Smith room to interrogate the intersections of WWII and Cold War politics with the new globalized economy.

Tatiana's work as a journalist also is a convenient--perhaps too-convenient--mechanism for capturing a slew of recent crises, from the sinking of submarine to Chechen terrorism/rebellion. At times, they mystery seems more obviously McGuffin, allowing Smith room to reveal Russia, but more window-dressing than narrative center. Still, there is a strong central mystery, and some nifty code-breaking.

But what always stands out for me is that language. In some ways, he is a worthy successor to Chandler, another writer more interested in a dazzling metaphor than precision plotting. But Smith's prose amplifies the sense of Russia--his figurative language, his characters' dialogue, the simple way he describes a room feels almost translated. His lovely writing doesn't just surprise, it shapes and reveals a sense of other ways of thinking about the world. Arkady's questions are like "walking all around a horse before buying it;" a gangster's smile is a "hook in the mouth;" a church is a "dead telephone." Every page surprises -- even when the mystery flags, there is a constant sense of discovery.

Readers could come at this novel without prior knowledge of Renko or previous events, although fans of the series will be delighted to see the return of Zhenya and Victor. But it's not merely a worthy addition; Tatiana easily stands alone, another strong work by a wonderful writer.