In reading a recent article about Russia and the Ukraine, the author noted that about one-half of those who support Putin do so because his strong leadership mimics that of Stalin. The other half support him because he doesn’t act like Stalin. Such is the enigma of Russia. It is this type of enigma in this culture that gives us Dostoevsky and Chekov’s characters, the nightmare of Soviet politics, and the Martin Cruz Smith novels about Russian detective Arkady Renko.
In this novel, late-night riders going through a Moscow subway stop report a seeing Stalin. Superiors, eager to get Renko out of their way, assign him to the ludicrous matter. But as Renko digs deeper, we learn that more than an apparition of Stalin looms in a late night subway stop. The leader-butcher looms over Renko’s personal and family history as well as over elements in contemporary politics. Indeed, the digging in this novel becomes more than metaphorical when Renko is assigned out of Moscow to work in a town with old WWII battlefield nearby that locals search for military memorabilia. What they find is not what they want, but that’s often the way the past works. It is what it is, not what we want it to be, try as me may (and as Stalin tried) to re-write it.
Renko’s work as a detective is set against the two persons in his life he seems to genuinely care about: the enigmatic Eva, the Ukrainian physician whom he met during his investigation around Chernobyl (Wolves Eat Dogs) and Zhenya, the mute boy whom he “adopted” (in a very loose sense) that runs his own course and who has become a chess prodigy (how Russian!).
These novels work for me because they do what detective fiction can do better than any other genre: look at the underside of a society as well as its public face. One gets a sense of what it might be like to live in contemporary Russia (which was a part of the Soviet Union at the time that Smith wrote his first book in the series, Gorky Park). Smith is an American, and who knows if he’s accurate in his perceptions of contemporary Russian society, but he certainly gives a sense of verisimilitude that makes the story hum.