Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith

In 1981, a lifetime ago for many, a jowl-faced man and former intimate of Josef Stalin named Leonid Brezhnev was president of one of the two most powerful countries on the planet. Ronald Reagan was in the first year of his presidency, and the Cold War had again flared to frightening heights. It was also the year that a struggling author put out the book that would make his name and, in some ways, change a genre of fiction.

Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, cost $8.95 in hardcover then, and its hero was a young Russian policeman named Arkady Renko. It wasn't surprising that this cop was looking into murders. What was surprising was that the hero was ultimately going to place the blame on Americans for the crimes.

Most surprising of all: Gorky Park was one of the best-selling books of 1981. In retrospect, as Martha Stewart might say, that was a good thing.

In the interval since the first Arkady Renko story, there has been, for fans, a paucity of sequels. And while summer has become the season of sequels, that doesn't necessarily make them a good thing. (Anyone with a 5-year-old who has been dragged to the third - or is it the eighth? - Shrek movie knows better.) But, Smith's latest, exceptional sequel to Gorky Park is in a league of its own.

The Renko books have been a rolling history of Russia since Brezhnev. Renko has faced down the Russian mob, which now goes by the name of the "new capitalists," in Moscow (Red Square). He has hunted for answers to murders in the wasteland of Chernobyl (Wolves Eat Dogs). Sent to Havana, he has investigated the death of a Russian in a country tired of its weakened Soviet sponsors (Havana Bay).

In his latest, Stalin's Ghost, he confronts the nascent rise of fascism and a growing sentimentality for the brutal but predictable days of uncle Joe Stalin and his executioners in a Russia caught between its ugly past and a perhaps uglier future.

What starts out as a violent domestic dispute involving a dead husband with an ax in his back quickly turns into a case of crooked cops with a political agenda. The dead man is a member of the Black Berets, as are the two cops who have raised Renko's suspicion. The Black Berets is an army unit with a reputation for valor and brutality in Chechnya. Now, it may have something to do with a comrade's murder.

Parallel to this investigation, Renko is unceremoniously assigned the task of tracking down the source of sightings of Stalin's ghost on the Moscow metro line. Pretty women and old pensioners have been spotting the dead villain apparently waiting for a train.

As with homicide detectives everywhere, Renko's days and nights are spent in macabre venues, inciting strange musings. Writes Smith of one particularly morbid moment: "Platonov seemed invigorated to see the morgue's dead, the day's hypothermia cases, a windfall of frail, bleached bodies that were old, but not as old as he. 'This is the House of the Dead, the ferry on the river Styx,' Platonov announced. 'The final checkmate!' In his disheveled coat and shapeless hat he wandered among cadavers, reading charts, pleased with himself and saying, 'Younger . . . younger . . . younger . . . younger. It makes a man philosophical doesn't it, Renko?' "

Answers Renko: "Some it makes philosophical, some just throw up."

Renko's pursuit of information endangers his life when he's shot in the head, and that earns him a transfer to the provincial city of Tver, where his lover and the Black Berets have gathered to await the outcome of a political campaign with significance for post-Soviet Russia.

His superhuman efforts to bring justice to a seemingly lawless new land are further burdened by the needs of his semi-adopted chess master of a son, who has been running with a violent gang in Moscow, not to mention Renko's own memories of a father who was one of Stalin's more efficient generals.

Burdened by the aftereffects of a head wound - and navigating a strange city while attempting to hide from dangerous killers - would be more than enough for most, and Renko is no exception. He's running out of reasons for living, an affliction prevalent among his fellows.

His doctor tells Renko what to expect as he copes with his new situation, and it seems apt for his country, too: "The problem is that you don't know who you are. You will encounter unexpected gaps and changes in different faculties. Mood swings. Limits in problem solving. You don't know yet what you don't have."

Much has passed in the quarter-century since the first Renko tale. More has happened to the Russian people than perhaps anyone else, short of the Iraqis. Through a keen eye and rapier pen, Smith has done more to educate the West about current Russia than any foreign policy magazine or nightly news show.

In his remarkable new tale, the history lessons are not dogmatic or strident but suspenseful and, unlike the majority of sequels you read and soon forget, utterly enthralling.






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