Tatiana, by Martin Cruz Smith (Simon & Schuster):
American novelist Martin Cruz Smith has had a good run over the last 40 years, turning out such memorable standalone novels as Rose (1996) and December 6 (one of my favorite works of 2002). But it’s been his tales of Moscow investigator Arkady Renko--beginning with the Golden Dagger Award-winning Gorky Park (1981)--that have earned him the most widespread recognition. Tatiana, the eighth installment in the Renko series, finds our cynical sleuth probing the demise of journalist Tatiana Petrovna, who plummeted from a sixth-floor window. Curiously, that tragedy happened around the same time that a deep-pocketed mobster was exterminated. Are these incidents somehow connected? Renko’s struggle to find out sends him to a “secret” Cold War city, compels him to listen to tapes left behind by Tatiana--recordings that expose crimes notably absent from Russia’s official histories, and bring him closer to the deceased--and presents him with a code-filled notebook that might only be deciphered by his chess-hustling teenage associate, Zhenya. Smith’s nuanced portrayal of the New Russia--corrupt and violent, and no less in need of his services than its Soviet predecessor--is as tragic as it is seductive.
* * *This week also brings us A Nasty Piece of Work (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press), by Robert Littell, an author best known for such classics of espionage fiction as The Defection of A.J. Lewinter (1973), The Once and Future Spy (1990), and The Company (2002). Nasty Piece finds him taking a holiday from that world in order to deliver the oft-amusing, energetic, and digression-suffused adventures of Lemuel Gunn, a cynical ex-CIA agent who’s currently living in a mobile home in the New Mexico desert and scratching out what living he can make as a private eye. (Think of him as the opposite of television’s suave and successful Peter Gunn.) He’s just been hired by Ornella Neppi, a 30-something bail bondswoman whose business has been shaken by a cokehead, Emilio Gava, who’s anxious to flee and leave her on the hook for $125,000. Gunn agrees to help this woman, but with few clues and seeming no photographs of Gava available, he’s starting to wonder whether his quarry even exists. Littell takes such obvious delight in working the tropes and traditions of P.I. fiction, it’s hard not to enjoy the ride he offers in these pages.
READ MORE: “Ticking Time Bombs,” by Clayton Moore