Monday, March 17, 2008

stalin's ghost, by martin cruz smith

In the years since Martin Cruz Smith's 1981 classic, 'Gorky Park', the Californian novelist has penned no less than five follow-ups starring Arkady Renko, the put-upon Russian investigator perpetually pitted against Moscow's underworld parade of crooks and gangsters, government-sponsored or otherwise. The fifth is 'Stalin's Ghost', an exemplary thriller set in a much-changed Russia led by Vladimir Putin.

Perhaps the changes are illusory, however? Both Renko and Cruz Smith's prose-Moscow are instantly recognisable, the former soulful and intense and the latter dark and ominous, thick with a layer of "knee deep snow ... that softened the city". It's Spring and the snow is gradually melting, and the prologue reminds us what we know already, that "when the snow melted, bodies would be discovered". Twenty seven years on, that extraordinary opening, those three corpses found in Gorky Park, seem as cold and fresh as ever.

As the book's title implies, "Stalin's Ghost" is a book much occupied with memory, eloquent on the vital stand-off between the dark secrets of the past and nostalgia. Renko, charged with investigating the return of Stalin, who has been reported stalking the depths of Moscow's Metro system, discovers a network of corruption, murder and propaganda which has its tangled roots in post-Soviet politics, atrocities in Chechnya, and the events of the Second World War.

Cruz Smith has is an innate ability to spin complex yet accessible plot-lines around vital contemporary events; in this case, the transformation of the Russian underworld into the Establishment. But Renko himself is the author's finest achievement, and his centrality provokes the book's finest passages, particularly a dazzling sixteen page-long twist which had me exclaiming and thrumming my fingers against the spine in excitement.

Cruz Smith's touch is immaculate, allowing the novel's first half time to breathe and be dictated by personal concerns. Atmosphere is incubated, then a furious, breathless denouement is unleashed. The author has the reach to bequeath his characters real emotional complexity, combined with a ruthless touch which is equally befitting a serious novelist and a Russian gangster. Renko takes some blows for his unstinting morality, and the reader is the winner. 'Stalin's Ghost' is a bruising, superb read.

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