Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith (4/5)

The Arkady Renko series from Martin Cruz Smith has to be the most chronologically dispersed series I have ever seen.  It began with Gorky Park in 1981 and has continued up to 2010 with Three Stations, and in those 30 intervening years there have been only seven novels total.  But true to the old adage, “good things come to those that wait,” fans of Martin Cruz Smith and Arkady Renko have been well rewarded over the years.  These things are good.  Actually, to be more precise, the one installment I’ve read is good, but that bodes well for the rest of them, especially considering I came in on the tail end of the series.

The novel is Stalin’s Ghost, and it’s the sixth Arkady Renko book.  Renko is an investigator with the Moscow prosecutor’s office, an honest and principled man in what is arguably one of the most corrupt police forces in the civilized world.  He’s soft spoken and reserved, hardly ever even carrying his service revolver—strange for a man who happens to be the son of one of Stalin’s top generals in World War II.  And because Renko isn’t completely bent like the rest of his colleagues, he’s repeatedly finding himself on the prosecutor’s shit list.  That’s why, when there are murder investigations, organized crime trials, and enormous drug busts to be taken care of, Renko is assigned to investigate the recent sightings of Stalin’s Ghost on the Moscow Metro.  Everyone at the prosecutor’s office is certain that it’s a hoax, but in an election year even hoaxes can have an effect on the political opinion.  The prosecutor wants the perpetrators found and dealt with, lest it appear that he cannot control even the Metro stations in his district.  As it turns out, the ghost on the metro has even more to do with politics than they could have dreamed.

Renko witnesses one of the “sightings” himself, which pretty much amounts to someone on the train (it’s the last train through at 2 a.m.) standing up and shouting “I see Stalin!” and a bunch of old, blind pensioners falling all over themselves to agree.  Renko smells a rat, and that smell elevates to an overpowering stench when he gets off the train to see an “impromptu” shrine has been erected to Stalin with a pair of flaxen haired children reciting a speech and thanking the “benevolent leader” while a video camera rolls and a pair American political advisors look on.  He stops the proceedings, confiscates the video tape, and in the process manages to piss off some very powerful people.  As the investigation continues, it is revealed that the Stalin hoaxes are being used to foster a spirit of nostalgia for Russian patriotism (and what better patriot than Stalin, the man who killed millions of his own people?) in order to drum up support for a new political party.  The lead candidate for this party?  An ex-Black Beret and war hero from the most recent conflict in Chechnya.  Oh yeah, and did I mention that the same Black Beret stole Renko’s girlfriend, a Ukrainian nurse who did charity work in Chechnya?  Yeah, there’s that too.  So when the detective begins to investigate said war hero (now working for the prosecutor’s office as well) for a spate of “accidental” deaths of members in his old unit, even Renko has to admit that it’s more the jilted lover in him than pious crusader that motivates him to action.  As he digs deeper, a story begins to emerge about what really happened in Chechnya, a story of corruption and greed and murder. 

There are some other facets to the story, such as a street urchin chess savant, an old chess master, and a lot of reveries about Stalin and the struggle against the Germans in World War II, but those are the basics.  Using all of these elements, Martin Cruz Smith crafts a suspenseful, engrossing story like only writers at the top of their game can do.  The characters for the most part are realistic, deep personas; the plot is appropriately paced and riveting.  The book is also peppered with aspects of Russian history and culture that I found especially enjoyable, lending an aura of Russian grit and authenticity to the book I don’t think it would have had otherwise.  But one of the more astounding aspects of the book (to me, at least) is the language Smith employs in his writing.  For lack of a better word, it sounds extremely foreign.  By that I mean it sounds as if it was written in another language (in this instance Russian) and then translated back into English.  Many times a work will lose much of its linguistic nuances upon being translated into another language and as a result sounds a bit more stilted in comparison.  In the case of Stalin’s Ghost, the language isn’t stilted, but it is somehow rigid in how it comes together, devoid of slang terms or colloquialisms and extremely precise in its diction.  It simply doesn’t sound as if an American wrote it.  I read this book as an audiobook, so perhaps some credit is due the narrator in this regard, though certainly not all.  I know that’s a really obscure point, but I’m an English nerd, and that’s the kind of thing that makes me salivate.

Another thing that makes me howl for joy about this book is the point of view (POV).  Yeah, I know I’ve been grinding my axe about POV recently, but I don’t care.  This deserves to be said.  For all you aspiring writers out there (and even some already published writers), listen up.  

This right here?  Stalin’s GhostThis is how you do a third person limited POV. 

Third person limited means of course that the narrator is telling the story from “outside” of the characters but is privy only to the thoughts and feelings of the main character (and sometimes not even that).  There are no internal monologues from extraneous characters, no delving into the psyche of anyone else, no breaking up the narrative in order to see what someone else is doing.  The narrative style Martin Cruz Smith uses is precise, measured, and artful.  It allows the reader to become much more intimate with the main character, to identify with and understand him more fully rather than shooting off on other narrative tangents that are removed from the main thrust of the book.   I particularly liked the way Smith handled the narration during Renko’s time in the hospital (he gets shot in the head and is in a coma for a while), which alternates between dream-like flashbacks and snippets of dialogue from the people standing in his hospital room.  Since the main character’s eyes are closed and he can only hear what is being said (let alone understand the meaning or identify the people speaking), those sections are populated with only dialogue.  No “he said” or “she said,” nothing.  Just the dialogue.  And as I thought about it, I was even more impressed because the style and syntax there managed to get across critical elements of the story and the emotion of the characters while still staying true to the POV.  Maybe I get unduly excited about that kind of stuff, but I can’t help it.  I’m an English nerd, remember?

As for negatives about the book, I’m going to have to scrape the bottom of the barrel on this one because there simply aren’t many.  One thing that was a little irksome was the fact that Renko kept stumbling upon important plot elements accidentally—a murdered body here, an accident there.  It wasn’t overly annoying, and some of that is to be expected from a mystery/thriller, so it didn’t impact my enjoyment of the book.  Other than that, I really don’t have anything to complain about, which as you probably know is rare for me.

The graphic below says four stars, but in my mind I’m really giving it more like four and a half.  Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith is an intriguing mystery, a stylistically superb book, and a gripping read.  It may not happen in the next month or even the next year, but damn it, I am going read the other books in this series.  I can’t help it--I’m hooked.


  1. Great review. Nice to see that he is still writing. I read his first books in the late 80s early 90s. Proper use of POV is sticky point for me as well. The thriller genre has allowed the writing quality to slide, but these old guys like Martin Cruz Smith and John LeCarre have an excellent quality of writing, as well as pack in a good action story.

    1. Jackleen,

      I couldn't agree with you more! It makes me want to pull out my hair when I read a "mystery" book in which the POV keeps bouncing back and forth between the protagonist and little snippets of whatever the killer is doing. If you already know who the killer is, then half the mystery is already gone. Ah well, we can't have everything, now can we?

      Thank you so much for reading, and thank you for your kind words.

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