Billionaires and iPhones, public demonstrations and muckraking journalists, nightclubs and high living. It's been more three decades since "Gorky Park" introduced the world to an investigator named Arkady Renko and everything has changed in Moscow.
Renko knows better. The corruption, broken dreams, and existential ennui haven't been wished or wiped away. They aren't Stalin statues to be smashed into pieces. Like him, they remain.
Such is the eternal fate of Russia in the eyes of American novelist Martin Cruz Smith, whose career was born in the era of paranoid paperback thrillers. Entranced by the dark sides of a country that accepts and celebrates its miseries like no other, he can't keep his eyes away.
And neither, once again, can we. The latest Renko novel, Tatiana, is yet another intricate and evocative page-turner that finds the humanity amid an atmosphere of gloom and regret.
Smith draws the reader in from the first pages, when we meet a refined interpreter dressed in red spandex and riding a custom-made bike in the far western city of Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg when it was part of Germany. A "one-man crowd," the man speaks six languages, dreams in Thai, and interprets for corporate negotiators.
He is not in Kaliningrad to catch the sights. There aren't any in this wretched crime-ridden city, a "fantasy gone wrong." Tourists don't come here, and they don't leave here. Neither will the interpreter, thanks to a man in a butcher's van with a plastic pig on top.
Meanwhile, back in Moscow, a billionaire mobster has been shot and killed. Everyone wants to figure out the strange code in the interpreter's notebook. And a crusading journalist with her eye on corruption and atrocities is dead, the victim – or so it's said – of a suicidal fall.
This being Smith's Russia, almost no one in the book appears to be happy or even content. Instead, they're seemingly oppressed by their very Russianness.
The authorities lose a body, and it's not surprising. "It's one of their functions," Renko explains. Middle-aged intellectuals try to hold a protest, but they face unspoken accusations that they'd "overthrown the dead weight of an empire" but now "had gone as soft as rotting pumpkins." A painter who used to specialize in Stalin portraits now depicts rural scenes with a sense of menace.
In a tape recording, Tatiana quotes the tortured Russian poet Yesenin, who described his country's character a century ago before dying at a very young age: "The moon will float up in the sky,/ Dropping the oars into the water./ As ever, Russia will get by,/ And dance and weep in every quarter."
Tatiana hopes to wear high heels and learn to tango in heaven, and she expects to arrive there pretty soon. "Is it worth it? The problem with martyrdom is the waiting," she says.
But first she will make sure to target those who would target her and put "a torpedo under their waterline," so to speak. She is not one to accept her fate lightly, as unhappy as it may be, just as the investigator who's trying to solve her murder refuses to let the world stop his quest for truth.
At one point, a colleague tries to convince Renko to stop worrying about a demonstration-gone-bad that protesters would rather forget: "It's like that old adage about a tree falling in the forest; if nobody hears it, was there a sound?" Renko's reply: "What if it falls on you?"
As anguished as he may be, the detective won't let his own society crush him like a tree falling from above.
Mystery novels are full of sleuths like Renko. You could call them card-carrying members of the World-Weary Detectives Club: Anguished but not quite beaten, they fight for justice against systems more flawed than they are, shining a bit of light into the darkness.
No wonder we've never wearied of them.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.