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Book Review - Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith

War Heroes

Stalin's Ghost
by
Martin Cruz Smith

Published by Simon & Schuster

Review by W. R. Greer


To many Russians, Joseph Stalin is a hero. He saved Russia and defeated Hitler during World War II. He made the Soviet Union into a world superpower and brought prosperity to the country. While many Russians are forced to scratch out a living in the new Russia, Stalin's return, along with the prestige and prosperity of earlier times, would be a welcome sight. To many other Russians, Stalin's name and image invoke memories of purges and tyranny and a return to the past that should never be repeated. When riders of the last train into one of Moscow's Metro stations claim to have seen Stalin standing on the platform, it's a situation that must be handled delicately. The prosecutor knows he must find a way to investigate the sighting of Stalin's ghost without inflaming passions on either side. It's a thankless assignment, so he gives it to the one investigator he dislikes the most - Arkady Renko.

Arkady Renko is a man driven to understand the truth, which constantly puts his career, if not his life, in peril. It's not a higher calling or a moral duty to be an honest cop. It's because his job immerses him with the worst of the incompetence, corruption, and violence of Russian life, and his dogged determination to understand the truth behind these crimes lets him hold on to his tenuous grasp of sanity in an insane world. He was investigating a woman who wanted to hire cops to kill her husband, because she heard that could be arranged. What intrigued Arkady was the call came to another investigator's phone and she assumed Arkady was Marat Urman, one of a pair of new investigators that had been getting under Arkady's skin, and not just because they were getting the plum assignments. Urman and his buddy, Nikolai Isakov, were heroes of the Chechen War, members of an elite commando unit called the Black Berets. In Arkady's estimation, though, they weren't very good cops and they either missed or misunderstood clues in the murders they were investigating.

While Arkady was dispatched to the Metro station, Urman and Isakov were investigating deaths that appeared accidental or the result of domestic disputes. Arkady is pretty sure that Stalin's ghost in the Metro station is a political theater for some nationalist party using Stalin's memory to stir old patriotic feelings. Arkady can't help poking his nose into Urman's and Isakov's investigations, potentially incurring their wrath. He can't help himself, partly because it's become personal. Arkady's personal life is unraveling. Zhenya, the homeless boy he'd taken into his home has disappeared. His lover, Eva (whom he met near Chernobyl in Wolves Eat Dogs), is pulling away because she met a man from her past, Nikolai Isakov. Arkady knew she spent some time in Chechnya as doctor during the war, but he was unaware of her relationship with Isakov. As he and Eva dance around this knowledge, he knows she's leading up to leaving him to go back to Isakov.

What was the etiquette of cuckoldry? Should he leave them to their privacy, allow himself to be chased from his own bivouac? It wasn't as if he and Eva were married. It was clear that she could still physically act as if they were lovers and, from time to time, banter cheerfully to raise his hopes, at least until tonight, but the performances took more effort all the time. It was rare that their work shifts coincided because she scheduled her hours more to avoid Arkady than to see him. Betrayal was exhausting, weighting every word with double meaning. Even when they made love he would spend the rest of the night examining everything Eva had said or done, watching her as if she were going to slip away and watching every word he said so as not to jar the mutually constructed house of cards. It had collapsed now, of course.
Stalin's Ghost is perhaps the most personal for Arkady Renko. He's in obvious pain with his relationship with Eva, and Zhenya has gone into hiding somewhere for an unknown reason. This investigation and eventual disruption of the Stalin's ghost events in the Metro have earned him new enemies. His unofficial investigation in the activities of Urman and Isakov leads to more questions and more corpses. It also leads him to his own past, specifically his relationships with his parents. His father was a famous general under Stalin and had been a hero during World War II. Arkady's investigation leads to not only suspicious activities involving the Black Berets in Chechnya, but also leads back to World War II. He discovers that it's a fine line between being a hero and being a criminal, and during war time, that line is easily blurred.

Martin Cruz Smith could probably coast for a few books with his famous Russian detective, but instead he's delivered another Arkady Renko novel that contains not just a complicated plot where each layer of intrigue and mystery is delicately pulled back to reveal deeper peril for Arkady and insights into both Russian culture and human behavior, but also throws Arkady deep into both emotional and physical pain. Instead of pursuing his investigation with the dark cynicism that the truth at the center of his case means nothing to anyone but him, this time it's personal. Arkady is fighting not just for the truth, but for the ones he loves. Stalin's ghost has nothing on Arkady's own past that haunts him.

It's comforting to find an author than write a series revolving around the same protagonist and constantly find new avenues to explore and continue to write novels that are gripping and entertaining. Rest assured that Martin Cruz Smith has delivered another excellent Arkady Renko novel with Stalin's Ghost.

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Read our review of Wolves Eat Dogs.

Read our review of December 6.

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