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Onyx reviews: Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith

Many crime writers have "their place," a city or region they know so well that it becomes a veritable character in their novels. Moscow belongs to Martin Cruz Smith. Though his series protagonist Arkady Renko has strayed from his homeland on occasion, he's now back in the Russian capital, and it's a bleak place indeed. In many ways Russia is still a Cold War nation, where corruption runs through its streets and alleys the same way blood—or vodka—flows through every one of her citizen's veins.

Smith, author of Gorky Park, Havana and Red Square, has become one of the most literate crime writers practicing today, standing shoulder to shoulder with John Le Carre. Some of his sentences and turns of phrase are breathtaking marvels of economy and impact. It's amazing how beautiful prose can be used to depict such a miserable place and people.

The ghost of Joseph Stalin, the tyrant who led Russia through World War II, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, is spotted late at night on the platform of a Moscow subway station. Mass hysteria? An attempt to reinvigorate the flagging communist party? Or the strategy of media consultants trying to boost the popularity of a new candidate for the Russian Patriots, a startup nationalist party that wants to "Restore Russian Pride?" This is the question Senior Investigator Renko sets out to answer at the insistence of his boss, Prosecutor Zurin, a man Renko barely trusts. Officials fear that Stalin's ghost will become a polarizing figure around which the old guard, yearning for former glory, will circle.

Stalin's Ghost opens with Renko and his partner, Victor, being interviewed by a woman who thinks she's hiring them to murder her husband. She knows they're police; Renko and Victor are meeting her because Victor answered her call to a phone on a fellow officer's desk. It says a lot about the state of affairs in Russia that someone would call the police station to hire a professional killer.

One of the features the woman offers to identify her husband is a tattoo that includes the name Tver, a city geographically close to Moscow but distant in just about every other way. "A flat, hopeless dump on the Volga," according to Victor. Arkady thinks this is harsh but agrees that people who move to Moscow from Tver generally shed their hometown identity as fast as possible. "They didn't have it inked on them forever."

Their meeting is the first strand in a complex thread that weaves through the rest of the novel. Or rather the first gambit in a chess match that involves elite soldiers, Chechen rebels, ambitious politicians, American political consultants, a pornographer, a harp-playing strangler, and a group of diggers who excavate killing fields outside Tver that date back to World War II. People are buried all over Russia as a result of various military and political pogroms, a point illustrated early in the book when workers renovating the Supreme Court discover a mass grave from the 40s or 50s in the basement. This incident isn't part of the crime Renko is trying to unravel—it's just another detail that reflects Russia's dark past.

Everywhere Renko turns, his path crosses that of his fellow detectives, Nokolai Isakov and Marat Urman, the officer who was meant to receive the call soliciting murder for hire. Isakov and Marat are investigating a death they are determined to see written off as a case of domestic violence. The victim bears the same tattoo as the man Renko and Victor were "hired" to kill. When the murdering spouse dies in prison after swallowing her tongue, the case is neatly wrapped up.

As far as Renko is concerned, Isakov has two marks against him—he's running for political office and he's sleeping with Renko's girlfriend, Eva Kazka, the doctor he met in the shadows of Chernobyl. Isakov is a war hero, though, leader of a handful of Russian Black Berets (many of them from Tver) who suffered only one injury while killing an overwhelming force of Chechen Rebels. Those very same heroic, tattooed Black Berets are now turning up dead all over Moscow. It's clear to Renko that someone has something to hide.

Like many fictional police officers, Renko is on the outs with his superiors and the establishment. In his case, however, the establishment and his superiors are so corrupt that working the outside track is the honorable place to be. He seems to be the only person interested in uncovering the truth—even the prosecutors are complicit, and any evidence Renko uncovers runs the risk of vanishing.

Renko's private life is a shambles, as might be expected of a man who is so devoted—obsessed—with his work. His relationship with Eva is strained and muddled, and Zhenya, the chess-playing street urchin he has been looking after lately is missing. This doesn't keep him from pursuing every available lead. Nothing could.

In addition to showing up at a remote Metro station, Stalin's ghost also appears in Renko's dreams. His father knew Stalin personally—he actually visited the apartment where Renko now lives. General Renko was a sadistic butcher, both as a military man and a father, but some of the harsh lessons he delivered to his young son serve Renko well later in life.

After Renko is seriously injured on the job, he is "invited" to choose a post in a new location. He surprises his superiors by picking Tver, Isakov's home turf and a dangerous place for Renko to be. It's a much better choice than the alternatives, though. Even in the modern era, those who fall out of favor in Russia still risk being banished to Siberia.

Smith plays interesting games with dreams and flashbacks. It's an old standard of mysteries that a gun shown in Act I must be fired in Act III. But what about a gun that is being disassembled in a dream or a memory? During the climax, Renko is faced with a disassembled weapon, and astute readers will surmise what happens next—and be surprised when Smith goes against expectations.

The plot propelling Stalin's Ghost is as complex a chess match as any of the blitz games Zhenya plays and nobody escapes from the adventure unscathed—especially Renko, who is attacked by an amazingly diverse array of individuals. After the events of this book, he might consider taking his gun out of the locker and actually carrying it with him when he goes after bad guys.

Renko's main concern is solving the case, followed by surviving the investigation, but beyond that he also has to worry about the well-being of his young protégé, his future with Eva, and the ghosts of the past and the present that his relentless, dogged investigating won't allow to rest.

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