Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith

My once fierce determination not to read book series out of order now lays broken and battered on the side of the road. Given the limited time I have and the seemingly never ending stream of books in my TBR pile something has to give. I know there are those who would argue that you can’t really review a novel without a good understanding of the authors previous work and his general career arc. Perhaps this is really aimed at literary criticism and not the review of genre fiction, nevertheless I always have a pang of guilt reading works that are part of series, or that have a reoccurring character, without having read them in order. It leaves me with the feeling that I am missing something; that I am not getting a full appreciation of the sweep of the plot and the character development. I am sure these books are designed to work at some level as a stand along work, but there is a built in advantage to having read the previous works.

All of this is a lament by way of introducing the fact that I haven’t read any of Martin Cruz Smith’s previous book prior to reading Stalin’s Ghost which is the sixth in a series centering on the Arkady Renko character. So keep this caveat in mind for what follows.

Renko’s boss assigns him the awkward job of trying to get to the bottom of rumors that Stalin is haunting a Moscow subway station. The ghost turns out to be a bit of agitprop for a nationalist political party seeking to use Uncle Joe’s image for political gain. This in turn ties into the Senate campaign of one of Renko’s colleagues Nikolai Isakov – a former Black Beret who has returned a hero from the ugly war in Chechnya.

Renko soon finds that out, however, that there are a number of connections between his fellow investigator and a number of recent homicide cases. Renko being Renko, he can’t help but to keep pulling at the loose threads despite the mounting bodies and threats to his own life. To add a twist to the plot, Renko’s girlfriend also has a connection with Isakov and it appears she is intent on reconnecting with the Black Beret. Everything points back to what was supposed to be a heroic stand by the Black Berets facing superior arms and numbers from Chechen rebels, but something isn’t quite right about the events of that day. The question is whether Renko can get the answers before getting himself killed.

The ghost of the title is more than just an example of political manipulation but a symbol of Russia’s brutal and tortured past that haunts the nation to this day. Stalin haunts Renko in the form of his authoritarian father – a respected general and who was favored by Stalin but who never got his coveted Marshall’s baton – and the rest of Russia as a temptation to return to the days when the bloody dictator saved Russia from Hitler and brought the nation to international prominence.

The tragic soul of Russia provides the tone for the novel. In essence, it is a police procedural mixed with a meditation on how violence and oppression has left the Russian people adrift in a globalized world. They have imported capitalism – or at least a twisted form of it – and modern political tactics but they still seem mired in poverty and corruption. As a result they continue to feel the temptation of a strong ruler who will return the once proud nation to its rightful position as an international power.

PW’s review captures the book’s style:

Smith eschews vertiginous twists and surprises, concentrating instead on Renko as he slowly and patiently builds his case until the pieces fall together and he has again, if not exactly triumphed, at least survived.

I enjoyed reading Stalin’s Ghost, and Renko is an interesting character, but perhaps my lack of familiarity with the series affected my impression. At time I felt it lacked a certain sharpness or clarity. Smith provides a lot of background, and the secondary characters are more developed, but the basic plot seemed both thin and convoluted at the same time. In seeking to paint a accurate portrait of life in current day Russia Smith loses a certain amount of focus. The journey is more important than the destination. The whole chess competition side story and the relationship with his adopted son felt odd at times, for example. And the tie in with the Katyn massacre felt a bit forced, etc. This often happens with longer series’s because the dynamic is obviously different across six novels than it is within a stand alone.

Nevertheless, I am sure Smith and Renko fans will enjoy this most recent addition to the series. If you like your police procedural with a strong sense of history, your lead characters hardened bu idealistic, and the pace a less frenetic than your average thriller, you will enjoy Stalin’s Ghost as well. But if you have the time, I would start the series at the beginning.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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