There may be catch-up delays required for readers who enter for the first time, as I did, the already well-established fictional world of Russian detective Arkady Renko, who appears to fit the Winston Churchill description of Russia itself -- “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Getting one’s bearings through this single novel of the series may take time. I liken it to sidling into a theater seat while Act
Two is in progress. One strives simultaneously to deduce some Act One basics of setting, characters and backstory while keeping track of immediately unfolding events.
Having visited the Soviet Union just six months before Communism collapsed, I was somewhat prepared for a latter-day reprise of a cultural constant of that country. It was tersely summarized by Oscar Wilde as “Nothing is impossible in Russia but reform.” The shocks and sorrows of 21st-century
life as so starkly delineated here by Cruz Smith actually revived depressing
impressions of Moscow, circa 1989 – stores without stock; streets thronged with
what appeared to be an army of the despairing; cheering touches of color scarce, except in the ruffled, intricately tied hair ribbons adorning little girls.
To experience, then, any sense of Moscow’s glories, one almost had to burrow deep underground, where the fleet-footed masses risked disaster by propelling themselves on and off the fastest, steepest, scariest escalators I had ever encountered to catch subway trains in stations so lavishly designed and ornamented as to seem more marble palaces than plebian transit stops. And, as it happens, Arkady’s
tribulations begin when he is assigned to investigate reported incidents of
spectral sightings of Joseph Stalin in one particular metro station:
“Platonov rambled on about the Metro’s glories, the white marble hauled from the Urals, black marble from Georgia, pink marble from Siberia. At Kropotkin station he pointed out the enormous chandeliers. The station was named for Prince Kropotkin, an anarchist, and Arkady suspected that the chandeliers would have made the prince’s hand itch for a grenade.”
If nearly all of Russia appears to be host to ghosts, it’s surely attributable to the country’s ancient and tragedy-laden history. It follows that a Stalin phantom as plot element would surely have legs. It turns out to be something of a throw-away – a reference point soon subsumed by a complicated plot headed in directions other than the creepily super-natural. Of course, it works as metaphor, suggesting a nation and individuals seemingly never able to exorcize old curses and demons. One such individual beset by the past is Renko, not yet come to terms with his father’s fealty to Stalin, whom he served as a favored army general.
A major plot element points to the fact that what may seem a banal, neglected bit of wasteland anywhere in Russia may yield glimpses and material proof of past unspeakable horrors. As unearthed in the dreary town of Tver, just outside Moscow, such evidence comes to be considered valuable and sought both by greedy sellers of collectibles and by rival political factions eager to trigger nationalistic fervor to sway voters.
His investigative efforts earn Arkady a litany of hurt: he’s grievously wounded (and surely would
have died without the ministrations of a tough, technically skilled, and seemingly noble woman surgeon); his lover, Eva, leaves him for a steely, politically ambitious ex-soldier (and reputed hero) of Russia’s Chechen war; and he nearly loses Zhenya , the abandoned waif-turned-chess-prodigy and surrogate son.
Some longtime series eventually reach a stage of seeming facile and formulaic. From reading this Arkady outing, I sense that Cruz Smith has not yet run out of gas. For this newbie, there appears to be a lot still to know about the key character and the gritty, soul-eroding world in which he operates.