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Originally published Sunday, November 24, 2013 at 3:04 AM

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Martin Cruz Smith’s ‘Tatiana’: death of a crusading journalist

Martin Cruz Smith’s latest Arkady Renko mystery, “Tatiana,” modeled on the real-life murder of a Russian journalist, offers a window into the dark nether regions of the new Russia.

Special to The Seattle Times

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by Martin Cruz Smith

Simon and Schuster, 304 pp., $25.99

Did she jump or was she pushed? There’s never much room for doubt in Martin Cruz Smith’s absorbing new mystery: Tatiana Petrovna was not a likely candidate for suicide.

Petrovna — a tough-as-nails investigative journalist in Moscow — is clearly modeled on a well-known, real-life figure. Anna Politkovskaya’s murder in 2006 aroused international attention. The case has never been solved, although widespread speculation suggests the Russian government may have been involved.

As for the fictional Tatiana: When she fell from her sixth-floor apartment window, she had been digging into the life of a recently murdered billionaire gangster, Grisha Grigorenko. Though the authorities rule otherwise, it’s clear her death was no accident or suicide — especially after her body disappears from the morgue.

Enter Arkady Renko. The homicide inspector — shrewd, testy, weather-beaten — was introduced in 1981’s enormously popular “Gorky Park” and remains Smith’s signature character through this, the eighth novel about him.

Smith’s Renko series stands out from the pack in several ways. For starters, Smith has a gift for creating sympathetic and believable characters that are miles ahead of the cardboard figures found in run-of-the-mill crime fiction.

More profoundly, the books act as a kind of vivid timeline. We see, through both history and fiction, 30 years’ worth of wrenching changes.

Renko’s story takes us from the hermetically sealed Soviet era through the USSR’s dramatic collapse, the Wild-West entrepreneurship that followed, and on to the current, shadowy Putin era. It’s the perfect medium for Renko’s wry and penetrating observations about Russian society and the Russian soul.

In “Tatiana,” Renko finds a spiritual twin in the dead reporter — someone unwilling to accept at face value the official version of events — and becomes increasingly obsessed with the case. One key to the solution, it seems, is a cache of recordings the reporter made that indicate (no big surprise here) deep-seated government cover-ups and corruption.

At the same time, Renko investigates another death: the murder of a seemingly harmless interpreter in the dismal, distant industrial-military region of Kaliningrad. The cases, he soon finds, share a link: a notebook the translator kept in a fiendishly difficult cipher.

Renko’s best hope: relying on his ward Zhenya to break the code. Zhenya is a mess: a feral, troubled teen who demands Renko’s attention and then refuses his help, instead sleeping rough in places like train station casinos and eking out a living as a chess hustler. The saving grace: Zhenya’s brilliantly analytic brain gives him a head start in cracking the code.

With Tatiana only a memory in the minds of her friends, Smith has a problem: An absent figure at the heart of his novel. How does a writer make a dead character come alive, so to speak? (It’s a familiar problem in fiction — see “Laura,” “Rebecca,” and any number of other novels and films with characters who are missing but key to the story.)

Smith solves the problem neatly. He’s a pro, and “Tatiana” remains a gripping story with an ingenious twist and an interestingly complicated hero — the melancholy, cynical, tenacious Renko.

The book is also a series of fascinating insights into Russia, old and new. (There’s a wonderfully odd bit in which a gangster reminisces about seeing a tennis game between Boris Yeltsin and Luciano Pavarotti.) So stay tuned. As go the fortunes of Russia, so goes Arkady Renko.

Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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