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A Maelstrom Called Russia

By Patrick Anderson,
whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers@aol.com
Monday, June 11, 2007

STALIN'S GHOST

By Martin Cruz Smith

Simon & Schuster. 333 pp. $26.95

Against all odds, art happens. On television, "The Sopranos" ends in an explosion of blood and poetry that's closer to "Macbeth" than to "The Godfather." On film, Julie Christie, always heartbreakingly beautiful, is both heartbreaking and beautiful in "Away From Her." In music . . . where to begin? The other night, I returned to an old friend, Erroll Garner's "Concert by the Sea," and reflected anew that its magic may be what Mozart would have given us if he had been young, gifted and black in 1955.

And in fiction? This week brings us the sixth installment in Martin Cruz Smith's series about the Moscow detective Arkady Renko, a continuing adventure that in terms of popular fiction is surely a work of art. We first met the stubbornly honest, long-suffering Renko in 1981's bestselling "Gorky Park." Now, 26 years later, Renko still smokes too much, has trouble with women and clashes with his superiors, but "Stalin's Ghost" is profoundly unlike the earlier novel. "Gorky Park" was edgy and irreverent but essentially a stately police procedural about three mutilated bodies found in a frozen Moscow park. The tone of the new novel is vastly different. Today's Russia, as Smith pictures it, is a madhouse -- poor Renko is the only sane man in sight. The Soviet Union, under communism, was awful but predictable. The new Russia confronts Renko with a bewildering mix of capitalism, corruption, mob violence, political consultants, policemen who are hired killers, feminism, Chechen terrorists and, most incredibly, nostalgia for Joe Stalin.

Early in the novel, Renko's lover, Eva, watching the snow fall, says, "Maybe Moscow will be buried completely." "Like Atlantis?" he suggests. "Exactly like Atlantis," she replies. "And people will not be able to believe that such a place ever existed." It exists for Smith, and to portray it he has embraced the surreal, the fantastic, the blackest of black humor. Renko is told to investigate late-night sightings of Stalin in Moscow's Chistye Prudy Metro station. On the way to the station, Renko passes the Supreme Court building, where bodies are being dug up from the basement, bodies thought to have been there since the 1940s. Is this the novel's plot? No, just a casual reminder that in this Russia the past is never really past.

At the Metro station, people do indeed claim to have seen their onetime leader. "I saw Stalin as plain as day," a woman declares. "He asked me to get him a bowl of hot soup." Is this a hoax? A mass hallucination? Renko finds out, but not before Smith has made his point: What sort of nation is Russia today if millions of its people are nostalgic for one of history's most notorious mass murderers?

Characters return from earlier Renko novels. He and Eva, a doctor, coexist uneasily: "Sex was performed in silence and it was difficult to say how much of their lovemaking was passion and how much the desperate scraping of a dead match." Eva's 12-year-old son, Zhenya, often runs away to pursue his livelihood of chess hustler, playing adults for money and never losing. Platonov, the old chess grandmaster, remains an unreconstructed communist: "I remember when millionaires were shot on principle."

The plot turns on Eva's affair with Nikolai Isakov, a hero of the Chechen war who may be a coldblooded killer and is running for the senate on an ultra-nationalist ticket. Renko persists in investigating Isakov's crimes, despite several attempts on his life, one by a lovely woman who plays the harp in a Moscow hotel. In a grimly funny scene, Renko, with her harp-string garrote around his neck, is about to expire ("Strangulation came in stages") even as, from the communist gathering in the next room, we hear old recordings of Stalin denouncing Trotskyites while his audience shouts "Bullets are too good!" and "Stamp on them like vermin!" In this novel, it is nothing for Renko, while trying to buy a motorcycle, suddenly to find "an old man coming at him from behind with a pitchfork." Nor is it surprising when a young couple on the street "walked by with the soft steps of the truly stoned."

The climax of the novel is a hallucinatory scene near the stark city of Tver, where Renko is in exile. The bodies of dead Russians, shot by the Germans in 1941, are believed to be buried in a field outside the city, and Isakov's American political consultants have organized a massive "dig" at which the bodies of the martyrs will be found and Isakov will deliver a patriotic speech that will propel him to national prominence. Remains are indeed found ("As the day warmed, snow became a soft rain that revealed a cranium here, a kneecap there"), but there are problems, including the land mines that are scattered about the field. Renko feels magic in the air -- "He thought that between the patriotism and grain alcohol Stalin was bound to make an appearance" -- and pays too little attention to the latest villain determined to kill him.

All ends more or less well, but not before Smith, as well as entertaining us, has raised interesting questions. Renko can be seen as a father to Michael Connelly's equally honest and stubborn Harry Bosch, but Connelly's Los Angeles is never the madhouse that Smith's Russia has become. Thus the question: Is today's America all that less mad than Russia? Or is madness simply funnier when it's half a world away?

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