And More...

In the end, of course, the code is cracked and the notebook delivers details of a clandestine meeting attended by Moscow’s leading criminals along with a series of revelations about  corruption and greed.

And the tapes. 

Having entered Tatiana’s abandoned apartment, Renko finds the archive of tapes that hold her spoken accounts of horrific crimes. Her accounts clash with the Kremlin's official versions of, among other events, the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000, the terrorist takeover of a Moscow theatre in 2002, the Beslan school massacre in 2004 and the Moscow metro bombing of 2010. 

Many of those events were covered by Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist and human rights activist gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building in 2006. She provides the obvious template for Tatiana. Since her death was obvious payback for her aggressive reporting of events on the ground in Chechnya and exposés of corruption it was never going to be investigated too vigorously, and Moscow prosecutors ended up assigning blame to a former policeman sentenced in December 2012.

Anna Politkovskaya didn’t have Renko on the case.

Here, once he has access to the tapes, as he listens to Tatiana's recorded notes about scandals at home and abroad (Both sides have the same weapons … because our Soviet soldiers have traded their weapons for vodka. Here in Afghanistan, vodka is the great equalizer) the details are enough to have the reader lining up beside Renko in the quest for truth and justice without descending into overworked doom and gloom.

There are other difficulties that cast themselves into the path as Renko sets out to get to the bottom of things, and the chief among them is his semi-official foster son, Zhenya. The moody seventeen-year-old chess prodigy is blackmailing Renko to give him permission to enlist in the Army. In return for that permission, Zhenya will have a go at cracking the code, assisted by another chess prodigy, an attractive young woman whose grandfather paints portraits of Stalin. While they're hunkered down with the notebook in Arkady's Moscow apartment, Renko has plenty on his hands as he continues to pursue his investigations in Kaliningrad.

And that is where we start to get rather close to spoiler territory. Things work out in the end, and work out a deal better than the reader has any right to expect. But while Tatiana ends on a comparatively high note the reader just knows there’ll be another case, or another issue with Zhenya that’ll have Renko out in pursuit of a more civilised Russia.

The brutal criminal billionaires at the top of the pecking order aren’t going away anytime soon, bureaucratic incompetence that has become endemic is never going to disappear, the lines between organised crime and big business are going to stay blurred, investigative journalism will still put lives at risk and a reluctance to investigate matters that might involve the rich and powerful will continue in official circles.

On that basis, it’s just a matter of waiting to see what attracts Renko’s attention next time around. 

I, for one, hope it won’t be a long wait.

© Ian Hughes 2012