Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith

Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz SmithStalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith
Series: ,
Published by Simon & Schuster on June 12th 2007
Genres: Detective
Pages: 352

Investigator Arkady Renko, the pariah of the Moscow prosecutor’s office, has been assigned the thankless job of investigating a new phenomenon: late-night subway riders report seeing the ghost of Joseph Stalin on the platform of the Chistye Prudy Metro station. The illusion seems part political hocus-pocus and also part wishful thinking, for among many Russians Stalin is again popular; the bloody dictator can boast a two-to-one approval rating. Decidedly better than that of Renko, whose lover, Eva, has left him for Detective Nikolai Isakov, a charismatic veteran of the civil war in Chechnya, a hero of the far right and, Renko suspects, a killer for hire. The cases entwine, and Renko’s quests become a personal inquiry fueled by jealousy.

The investigation leads to the fields of Tver outside of Moscow, where once a million soldiers fought. There, amidst the detritus, Renko must confront the ghost of his own father, a favorite general of Stalin’s. In these barren fields, patriots and shady entrepreneurs—the Red Diggers and Black Diggers—collect the bones, weapons and personal effects of slain World War II soldiers, and find that even among the dead there are surprises.

Stalin’s Ghost is replete with Martin Cruz Smith’s trademark wit, dark humor and action. In this tale of Arkady Renko, Smith has again fashioned an unforgettable character as cynical as Philip Marlowe, but with the heart of a Chekhovian Everyman. The reader is treated to an unparalleled thriller woven with a depth of humanity found in the finest literature.

In the realm of detective novels, there are hard-bitten, heavy-drinking, trenchcoat-wearing characters… and then there is Arkady Renko, the star of novels by Martin Cruz Smith, and a staple of the genre for the last 30+ years. In Smith’s latest offering, our erstwhile detective must face down the ghosts of the past – both his own, and the nation’s – to resolve a mystery involving political scandals, World War 2 relics, and the ghosts of a more recent war in Russia’s history.

After reports of the ghost of Joseph Stalin haunting a local train station, Arkady is given the thankless job of getting to the bottom of it. And this isn’t your average mass-murdery Stalin either, it’s the lesser-known, sociable, waving Stalin. Clearly there are shenanigans afoot, and as he is the single most-disliked detective in Moscow it’s given to him.

There is one thing that is undeniable about Cruz Smith, and that is his deep understanding of the Russian psyche, and his ultra-dedication both to his craft, and depicting a rich and accurate picture of his characters and the world which they inhabit. I have probably missed a few Arkady Renko novels in recent years, but it took no time at all to fall back into his mindset.

Renko finds himself personally entangled in the whole mess, through his off-again-on-again girlfriend, his adopted son’s growing friendship with those involved, as well as his inability to find a woman for whom he isn’t prepared to drop his drawers. I don’t mean to sound unkind, but he’s not the most likeable character, but he does have a good heart.

The supporting cast of characters, particularly Zhenya and the aging chess grandmaster provide interesting elements to the story, although sometimes the entanglements seem a bit too convenient for the plot. However, the book had me hooked until the end, through a combination of mystery, the kind of atmosphere you can chew on, and a well spun tale that reached through the fog of war to explore some of the darker moments in human history.

Stalin’s Ghost is a well-crafted, very Russian detective story that will keep you entertained. I would say, however, that this is probably not for new readers to Martin Cruz Smith’s characters, as they do require some prior knowledge to understand the web of relationships that are involved.

Rating Report
Overall: four-stars

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