Martin Cruz Smith’s eighth Arkady Renko novel, Tatiana: An Arkady Renko Novel, centers on the mysterious death of a Russian journalist.

How closely does your character of Tatiana Petrovna resemble Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist who was murdered in 2006?

Politkovskaya was very much the impulse for Tatiana. She was an incredible person. She defied Russia’s “strong man” [Vladimir Putin], and she was eventually killed for it.

How has your police investigator, Arkady Renko, evolved?

As a young man, Renko was one of the gilded youth, one of the privileged in the Soviet Union. He showed promise, then he inexplicably slipped from favor because he refused to join the conspiracy of duplicity—because he’s incapable of duplicity. And now Renko is overwhelmed by Tatiana’s courage and honesty. Renko seems invulnerable, but the seed of vulnerability has been implanted in his head [in the form of a bullet fragment, in 2007’s Stalin’s Ghost].

Russia itself can be considered a character in the Renko novels.

Russia is a character in my Renko stories, always. Gorky Park may have been one of the first books to take a backdrop and make it into a character. It took me forever to write because of my need to get things right. You’ve got to knock down the issue of “Does this guy know what he’s talking about or not?” Russia is a fascinating country, and this is a fascinating period in Russian history, a mix of Kubla Khan and Karl Marx. Who is up today? Who is in Putin’s favor this week? It might change tomorrow afternoon—a weird dysfunction.

Tackling big themes like the murder of Politkovskaya and the state of Russia today separates your work from that of a lot of thriller writers.

I like mutilated bodies in fiction! But it’s just a geek show unless it’s connected to something that’s meaningful. I’m ambitious in the sense that I am interested in things that are having an effect on the world. At the same time, what I’m always hoping for is that readers feel that I’m making time disappear when they pick up one my books.

How are you received in Russia?

I wouldn’t say I’m welcomed. When I go to Russia, I’m usually pulled out of the line in customs and made to stand around for an hour or two. But the Russians have never stopped me from coming, and I am published there. You have to look at things from both sides. A Russian writer who has been critical of, say, the FBI might not get a warm welcome in the United States either.