Get Lit: Stalin’s Ghost, by Martin Cruz Smith

Travelers at a late night subway station report seeing the ghost of Joseph Stalin. It is not possible, of course, but the idea has a certain attraction for Russians tired of the new world order. Stalin has rebounded in the polls; his deadly excesses overlooked.

Much against his will, Inspector Arkady Renko is dispatched to investigate the sightings at the Chistye Prudy Metro station. And once again, author Martin Cruz Smith weaves another intricate story of human hopes, bad dealings and subterfuge set in the snow covered Moscow landscape.

Renko, who first appeared in Gorky Park in 1981, remains an excellent if doleful investigator who is often not appreciated by his bosses, despite or perhaps because of his success in solving cases. The crimes he investigates always seem to have political ties to them – which is as dangerous in 2007 as it was when Renko was first working as part of the Soviet Union. For some reason, despite knowing the dangers such unbridled curiosity bring, Renko remains a basically honest man who can’t seem to step back from the chasm.

In this book, Renko has the makings of a family even as it rapidly becomes clear it is in some disarray. His lover Eva, a doctor, seems to be dodging his calls. Zhenya, the troubled boy he’s semi-adopted, has disappeared again.

He runs up against two fellow detectives whose methods he finds increasingly suspicious. One of them, Nikolai Isakov, is a former hero of the civil war in Chechnya, and as the book develops, a politician for the far right. Professional becomes personal when Eva leaves Renko for Isakov. Without caring where it takes him, Renko pursues all his leads and suspicions and ends up on the fields of Tver, a World War II battleground where bodies and their surprises are buried.

Other dead bodies show up periodically, but are explained away. A wife kills her husband with a cleaver – “a case of cabin fever” Renko is told. She later dies by supposedly swallowing her own tongue – even more implausible to him. There are cover-ups beyond cover-ups by people made complicit by their own fears of attracting the wrong kind of attention from those in power.

This is not a quick read. Skip a line, a word or two and you miss clues to plot and character alike. You also miss the careful and clever language, the dark humor of a gifted writer. Martin Cruz Smith introduced a striking character back when virtually no one in the Western World was writing murder mysteries set behind the Iron Curtain. He has sustained that character through more than a quarter of a century. By the end of the book, Renko is much the worse for wear; the question of whether he will ever rebound fully from what has happened to him in serious doubt. All of which just makes this story all the more memorable. – Margaret Downing

Stalin’s Ghost, by Martin Cruz Smith, Simon & Schuster, $26.95

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