Martin Cruz Smith

Arkady Renko - Senior Investigator, Russia


"Stalin's Ghost"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky SEP 29, 2007)

Senior Moscow investigator Arkady Renko never stops digging. His curiosity and relentless pursuit of justice get him into deep trouble in Stalin's Ghost, a complex and surreal novel by Martin Cruz Smith. Renko's boss, prosecutor Leonid Petrovich Zurin, hates him and would like to be rid of this thorn in his side once and for all. Arkady occasionally dreams of quitting the police force and joining a private security firm or, with his law degree from Moscow University, becoming an attorney. However, as long as he is still on the job, Renko does what he is paid to do--solve homicides.

One night, Zurin summons Renko to Chistye Prudy Metro Station to question eyewitnesses who claim to have seen the ghost of the long dead dictator, Stalin. Renko considers this a colossal waste of his time, since he does not believe that Stalin's ghost has suddenly started haunting Moscow's subway system. However, there is something more serious going on here. A new political party called Russian Patriot has suddenly arisen. The party platform is to "Restore Russian Pride" and save the motherland from her ancient enemies and foreign terrorists. Bringing up Stalin's name may be a political move, since polls show that many Russians are nostalgic for the glory days when Stalin "made the Soviet Union respected by the world." The senatorial candidate of the Russian Patriots is Nikolai Isakov, a war hero, a Black Beret, and a romantic interest of Dr. Eva Kazka, a divorced Ukrainian national who survived Chernobyl. Arkady is in love with Eva and although their relationship has been strained of late, he does not want to lose her to Isakov.

Stalin's Ghost is about past crimes that cast a dark shadow on the present. Renko stumbles upon an excavation in Moscow's Supreme Court, where construction workers unearth a mass grave containing the bodies of people who were summarily executed by the state in the forties and fifties. Arkady is deeply ashamed that his father, General Kyril Renko, was one of the perpetrators of such atrocities. General Renko was Stalin's lackey and a sadistic butcher in his own right. Arkady is the opposite of his father. He is a compassionate man who tries to do the right thing, including taking care of a homeless twelve-year-old boy and chess prodigy named Evgeny Lysenko, nicknamed Zhenya. Eva says to Renko, "Sometimes I think your urge to do good is a form of narcissism." Renko is up against some formidable obstacles, including corrupt police officials and vicious killers who target him as their next victim.

As the novel progresses, Renko investigates a series of mysterious and apparently unrelated homicides. He learns that these killings may be connected to an incident that occurred in Chechnya, where six Black Berets supposedly took a stand against fifty Chechen terrorists. In the course of his inquiries, Renko deals with some unusual characters: Chess grandmaster Ilya Platonov, Zhenya's mentor, is a proud Communist, and a crusty octogenarian; Aharon Ginsberg is a Jewish journalist and a hunchback who knows far too much for his own good; Tanya is a beautiful harpist and a pole dancer with a talent for handling a garrote; a brutal Tatar named Marat Urman is Isakov's deadly henchman; and Osip Igorivich Lysenko is Zhenya's greedy and unbalanced father.

This novel is a black comedy, a convoluted thriller with scenes of sickening gore, a police procedural, and a history lesson about what has changed in Russia and what has remained the same. Russian men still drink too much, abuse their wives, and dream of past glories. Corrupt politicians and policemen enrich themselves surreptitiously, try to rewrite history, clean up loose ends, and eliminate anyone who might testify against them. Opposing them are individuals like Arkady Renko, who keep digging, trying to bring some sanity, hope, and truth to a country that seems to have lost all semblance of reason. Arkady is a courageous and reckless optimist, who believes that one person can make a difference in a world gone mad. Stalin's Ghost will appeal to readers who enjoy an unconventional and challenging story with psychological depth, sardonic humor, and a cynical view of human nature.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 108 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Stalin's Ghost at SimonSays.com

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"Wolves Eat Dogs"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky JAN 29, 2006)

Martin Cruz Smith's new novel, Wolves Eat Dogs, is a stylish and atmospheric story set in Russia and the Ukraine. Pasha Ivanov, a super-rich member of New Russia's capitalist class, has plunged to his death from his Moscow condominium. The authorities have ruled that Ivanov committed suicide. However, a stubborn and sharp detective named Arkady Renko would like to dig deeper into the "whys" of Pasha's death. His angry and corrupt boss, Prosecutor Zurin, has ordered Renko in no uncertain terms to close the case or lose his job.

To get rid of Arkady, Zurin sends him to the Ukraine, not far from Chernobyl. This was the site of one of the world's worst disasters, an explosion in a nuclear reactor that sent radioactive material into the atmosphere and made an entire region uninhabitable. The ostensible reason that Zurin dispatched Renko to this place is to investigate the murder of a second mogul named Timofeyev, Pasha Ivanov's business partner. Renko is handling the case on his own, and he seems doomed to fail. However, he is determined to get to the bottom of these two mysterious deaths that have one thing in common. Both men were contaminated by radiation before they died.

Smith's writing is vivid and at times, devastatingly brutal. He describes the area around Chernobyl, known as the Zone, so clearly that the reader can almost see the blunted trees, the blackened earth, and the desperate squatters who still live there in spite of the dangers of radiation exposure. The characters in this novel are a fascinating bunch, including some researchers who do studies and deliver medical attention to the inhabitants, and assorted criminals and thugs who make a living on the backs of other people's misfortune. There are also old people who stay near Chernobyl, in spite of the danger, because it is their home. During this investigation, Renko's eyes are opened to the horrible corruption and mismanagement that made the accident in Chernobyl into a terrible calamity.

Occasionally, Smith's writing is a little too oblique and the plot is sometimes difficult to follow. Overall, however, the novel's strength and vigor make it a satisfying and unique reading experience. Smith effectively explores the themes of greed, opportunism, desperation, and survival, and he teaches us a great deal about Chernobyl-a place of self-destruction, doom, and infinite sadness.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 114 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Arkady Renko series:

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About the Author:

Martin Cruz SmithMartin Cruz Smith grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, his father a white jazz musician and his mother a Pueblo Indian jazz singer.  He earned a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania in 1964.

He tried sports journalism, a job selling popcicles, and later painting in Portugal. Just to make ends meet, he settled at the Associated Press back in Pennsylvania. That career was short lived once he found himself falling asleep during budget meetings hosted by the governor.

In New York, Cruz Smith edited a men's magazine where he frequently published his own material under various pseudonyms and wrote potboilers under various pseudonyms. But when the day came when the publishers changed the manly magazine to include sexier content, Cruz Smith decided to move on.

Ultimately, Cruz Smith came back to creative writing. Going against the advice of his publisher, he pursued a novel about a Russian detective in Russia called Gorky Park. He sold Gorky Park for $1 million in 1981. 

He lives in San Rafael, California with his wife.

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