Investigator Arkady Renko is attending the funeral of businessman/mafia leader Grisha Grigorenko in Moscow when he encounters a group of demonstrators protesting the death of Tatiana Petrovna, a journalist who uncovers government corruption and exposes government officials who collude with criminals. Tatiana's death was ruled a suicide but Renko doesn't believe it and - against department regulations - starts an investigation.
Tatiana's death seems to be linked to the recovered notebook of a murdered international translator, a book filled with indecipherable pictures and symbols. Renko gets the notebook but can't figure it out. Renko's investigation soon takes him to Kaliningrad, a port city run by Grigorenko and his cohorts, considered one of the most corrupt cities in Russia. Everyone - the mob, cops, government officials, and Tatiana's editor - wants Renko to quit investigating Tatiana's death. In addition, many people want to get their hands on the mysterious notebook. All this leads to intimidation, violence, and betrayal but Renko carries on.
There are various interesting characters in the story including Renko's gruff but likable partner Victor; a broke, middle-aged, dissolute poet who was Tatiana's former lover; Renko's chess-hustler ward Zhenya who's a whiz with puzzles; an intrepid journalist who hopes to take over Tatiana's beat; criminals on the make; and more. In time, the notebook is translated and Tatiana's death is resolved.
To me Renko's investigation seemed more plodding and less compelling than in previous books but the Russian ambiance of the story is fascinating and memorable. All in all a pretty good mystery/thriller.