Books: The Return of Arkady Renko

I was telling a friend the other day that I was nearly done with the Martin Cruz Smith novel “Stalin’s Ghost” and that I was enjoying it. “Well, he’s got a good character,” my friend commented. My friend is no fool. Arkady Renko, Smith’s much-abused Moscow police detective, is, for a fact, a great character. And durable, having now lived through six novels, a trip to Cuba, a sojourn in Chernobyl and an impersonation by William Hurt in the movie of “Gorky Park.”

Renko is an unwilling hero. He isn’t particularly idealistic, or if he is, his idealism is all wrapped up in his professionalism. He can’t stand to do anything less than a thorough job. So, near the beginning of “Stalin’s Ghost,” he comes across a crime scene—a man face down at his kitchen table with a cleaver in his neck and a hysterical, blood-spattered wife in the bedroom. Detectives are already on the scene, the woman has confessed, and yet Renko can’t help asking questions. He’s bothered by the angle of the cleaver, by the casualness with which his associates assume that the glass on the table holds vodka and by the carelessness with which they examine the crime scene—or don’t; until Renko arrived, no one checked the corpse for bruises that might show he was held down by someone more powerful and then murdered.

The two detectives will soon become Renko’s chief nemeses in a case that involves the man with the cleaver in his neck, several other murder victims, Renko’s girlfriend (who’s also seeing one of the two detectives, an old flame) and Stalin’s ghost. People on the Moscow subway keep saying they see Stalin standing on a platform of a certain station. Stalin, it turns out, is still quite popular with a lot of Russians. He made the country a world power, they say. He made other countries respect Russia. As the nation drifts now between the control of organized crime and a government that toys wistfully with fascism while failing to provide basic human services, it is easy to see how people might wax nostalgic for a strong ruler whose mass murders are easily ignored as just so much past history. Even Renko, puzzling out a problem, asks himself, with a not entirely straight face, “What would Stalin do?”

There are several lines of tension in this smart, fast-moving novel. There is the tension between Russia past and present, between Renko and his girlfriend, between Renko and the girlfriend’s old boyfriend and, most engaging, between Renko and himself. A man who second guesses almost every move he makes, Renko is torn for most of the novel over the question of whether he is chasing Isakov, the boyfriend, because he thinks he’s a murderer or because he’s a romantic threat. Renko is never a violent man, but even this he questions about himself: “Was the difference between him and a killer simply a matter of remembering to carry a gun.”

Smith deftly paints a sad picture of Russia—a picture that seems to have been left out in the rain. Corruption, alcoholism, falling-down buildings—and that’s Moscow. The towns and cities of the countryside? Just boarded-up buildings surrounding empty squares with the same statue in the center, like a whole country with a going-out-of-business sign taped to the door. But Smith is as good on the little things as he is on the big picture. A television producer has “the short ponytail of a part-time artist.” But Smith’s real talent is for laying bare the heart of emotional entanglement with a phrase or a sentence or two. As Renko’s relationship with his girlfriend deteriorates, he does what all wounded lover do: he presses her for details of her other relationship, he demands commitment he know he can’t have. Renko “felt his heart race with hers. Well, they were working at something both perverse and difficult, the killing of love. That could raise a sweat.”

Smith’s several gifts—as an observer, a storyteller and man who simply (or not so simply) knows a lot about people—keep this series of novels from ever going stale. Some are better than others. “Wolves Eat Dogs,” the one about Chernobyl, was almost too grim, although with a title like that, you can’t say he didn’t warn us. “Stalin’s Ghost” is one of the best. The plot is sturdy, the people and setting always vivid, always believable. And there is, always, the character of Arkady Renko, who is usually funny, always honest and who tries, without telling anyone, to be a good man. The idea that Renko isn’t real, that he is nothing more than a fabrication of Smith’s imagination—this is almost impossible to believe. Whatever he is, though, he is always good company, which is more than I can say for myself or many of my acquaintances. Now, if I can just get William Hurt out my mind when I read these books, my enjoyment will be complete.