They don’t make cops much more world-weary than Moscow homicide investigator Arkady Renko, who has remained steadfast in his principles while trying to stay afloat in the vast sea of corruption that is post-Soviet Union Russia. Author Martin Cruz Smith puts it succinctly in the opening pages of his latest Renko thriller, Tatiana: “As for himself, Arkady knew he should quit the prosecutor’s office. He should have years ago, but there was always a reason to stay and semblance of control, as if a man falling with an anvil in his hands could be said to be in control.” Due to his integrity and dogged determination, Renko has been sidelined with junk work, kept away from active and sensitive investigations. So, like any good investigator, he strikes out on his own, this time probing the suspicious death of a rabble-rousing journalist. The police are only too happy to write it off as a suicide, thus sweeping her untidy remains under the deep, plush carpets of Moscow’s new power elite. To say that Smith is in top form with Tatiana would beg the question: When has he not been in top form? Smith balances plot, characters and atmosphere with talents equal to the best writers in the genre, and his latest effort is guaranteed to please his longtime fans and likely to win him many new ones.
BETWEEN HEAVEN AND HELL
While Arkady Renko is assailed by the greed and corruption all around him, Jack Taylor’s demons are strictly homegrown and nurtured. A lifetime blackout alcoholic and substance-abuse opportunist, the former Galway cop is, for the moment, tenuously on the wagon. It is a fragile sobriety, though, and it is about to be threatened by a serial killer with the cryptic moniker “C 33” in Ken Bruen’s latest thriller, Purgatory. Full disclosure: I have been a huge Ken Bruen/Jack Taylor fan since I reviewed The Guards back in 2003. Bruen has moved from strength to strength in the intervening 10 years, developing his protagonist into the brutally flawed yet oddly sympathetic character who has captured reading (and TV-watching) audiences worldwide. “C 33” is a formidable adversary, cleverly shepherding Taylor through a maze of false trails and goading him at every turn with cryptic messages. Purgatory is another fine installment in the series that defines Irish noir. (Incidentally, the Irish word for noir is dubh, pronounced “dhoo,” and Bruen’s body of work is dubh to the nth degree.)
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our 7 questions interview with Ken Bruen for Purgatory.
OUT OF RETIREMENT
For her latest novel, No Man’s Nightingale, Ruth Rendell has plucked superannuated Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford from retirement to lend a hand in the thorny investigation into the murder of a biracial female vicar. There is every possibility that the murder has racist or sexist overtones, but Wexford stumbles on a clue—a folded letter serving as a bookmark—that suggests a different direction altogether. Fans will recognize “different direction altogether” as Rendell’s modus operandi, and before the book draws to its surprising conclusion, there will be quite a few alterations in the course of the investigation, not to mention enough red herrings to feed a moderate-sized Dublin suburb their Friday supper. Wexford is in fine form considering his advancing years, although as an ad hoc consultant on the case, he has to rein in his customary bluster, and this newfound diffidence seems a bit out of character. It’s understandable, though, as he has no official brief, and he is enough of a pro to know his parameters. Inspector Wexford has long been one of the most beloved characters in English suspense fiction, and No Man’s Nightingale will only enhance that status. (A fun fact: The Wexford series is approaching its 50th anniversary. The first book, From Doon with Death, was released in 1964!)
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
Readers who were left wondering about the fate of Oslo detective Harry Hole at the end of last year’s Phantom can breathe a (tentative) sigh of relief. Harry is not dead—not yet, anyway. He lies comatose in a hospital bed, a round-the-clock guard stationed outside his door. The guard is a necessary evil, as there are forces on both sides of the thin blue line that would like to see Harry taken off the game board permanently. The police department is foundering in his absence, however: A serial cop-killer has eluded capture for some months, and without Harry’s guidance, the investigation has stalled. And who knows when, or even if, Harry will be able to jump back into the fray. Police is a denser novel than those that preceded it in the series, and it would be best to read some of the earlier books first, particularly Phantom. This is no bad thing, as the books are eminently readable, tracing Harry’s downward spiral through the loss of a relationship, troubles at work and his increasing dependence on alcohol, but always with that faint flicker of light at the end of the tunnel to draw him forward. With each successive character-driven installment, Nesbø has blurred the line between genre fiction and literature, and this time, he has pretty much obliterated it.