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Martin Cruz Smith: Stalin's Ghost [2007]

Was coming back to the house with some supplies around noon, stopped at the lights to wait for the left-turn signal. In the rear view mirror I see a guy in a gold compact SUV behind me, got a book in one hand and something in the other... hand goes to the mouth and he puffs some smoke and I'm thinking what's this, one of those electronic cigarettes? He rolls down the window. Notice a couple of those pine scent danglers hanging above the dash, so I guess he does a lot of smoking and toaking. He sets down his book and it's a small pipe he's got, hash or crack or something. Lights a match, fires it up again. Young guy. Glasses. Looks professional, a bit like my son, but younger. Thirty-five maybe. The green arrow starts flashing and I make my turn.

Martin Cruz Smith: Stalin's Ghost

He pulls up beside me at the next light, and he's still multi-tasking, no hands on the wheel. He hangs his hand with book out the driver window, like he's shaking some ash from it. Holy Christ, it's Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith -- I just finished reading that!

What he's doing is what we call "distracted driving" hereabouts, you know, one hand on the wheel, the other holding a cellphone or a beer or whatever. Only this guy has no hands on the wheel, he's busy with the dope pipe and Stalin's Ghost.

Imagine him being pulled over by a cop. If I was the cop I'd say, "Is that a hash pipe you got there, son? I hope so because hash isn't a criminal offense if it's medical."

And he'd say, "Oh it's medical, officer... I can't function without it."

And I'd say, "Well be that as it may... but the book... you can't be driving and reading at the same time, that's Distracted Driving, son. $280."

He looks really choked. Maybe it's those thin-rim glasses. "I just picked the book up," he says. "While I was waiting fer the light, honest."

And I'd say, "Sure, kid. The book any good?"

And he'd say, "Don't give me a ticket, man. I'm kinda freaked out... going for a job interview."

"What do you think of the ending?"

"Haven't got that far. See? I'm shakin'...."

"So is it really Stalin's ghost they see at the railway station?"

"You've read it? I didn't like that... they explain it and I don't like that."

"It's a scam?"

"Yeah. These kind of books are always like that, eh... built around a scam. Ghosts are for real, man."

Ghosts are for real... must be the hash, I'm thinking. Superstitious, like half the characters in that book.

I say, "How do you do it... smoke and read and drive at the same time?"

He demonstrates by bringing his knees up on either side of the steering wheel, locks on. Peer inside, see he has no feet.

Amazed, I say, "You're handicapped!"

"Yeah," he says. "Like I say, I need my medicine."

"Don't you have blades or springs or something?"

"Blades? I don't need blades, officer. I can walk on my hands."

I don't ask what happened, how he got to be here in a shabby gold Kia SUV with no feet, driving through town reading Martin Cruz Smith. It's obvious, he's a victim, like all the ghosts Stalin left behind. I send him on his way, tell him to go home and finish the book, even though he's a hard-core distracted driver. He's not smoking hash -- it's crack cocaine.

"Some cop that Renko."

"Yeah, I like him. He's fair."

"You think I'm fair?"

He doesn't seem surprised that I show mercy. He's cynical, steeped in tragedy and death; anyone who reads Martin Cruz Smith has to be. Sure, MCS's protagonist Renko is a utilitarian moralist, son of a predator killer (one of Stalin's generals) who doggedly survives from novel to novel like a Lada passed down through the generations. If you start at the beginning with Gorky Park and keep going through a few of them you get a lazy reader's guide to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its chaotic survival as a gangster state. Not only are they well-written, they are extremely well-researched with an impressive authenticity considering MCS is an American writing as an outsider. Gorky Park, Polar Star, Red Square... Havana Bay... Wolves Eat Dogs... Stalin's Ghost and one or two others. All of them have great setups, drop you into the action, no sweat. But the measure of a truly great writer is how he/she ends the story and MCS often falls back on bullshit to tie it all up. For all his realism, and excellent writing, he has a prime time affliction.

Polar Star is perhaps the most successful narrative in terms of symmetry (considering the asymmetric world Renko operates in). It's set on a Russian factory ship fishing off Alaska, where Renko has been banished following the inconvenient truth of Gorky Park. It's almost a dystopian science fiction setting, brilliantly conceived and executed, even if at heart it's a basic reinvention of an Agatha Christie country murder house. Red Square... well this one is a clever play on the painting by the Russian godfather of abstract impressionism, Kazimir Malvelich. The scam here concerns a substitute version of the Red Square painting which has a natural analogue to the confused state of affairs in the new Russia. Here, perhaps, Renko's tortured romance is more important than the mystery of the 'red square' (this might be true of all the Renko novels, with their reverse Byronic romanticism) (yes, you can connect Renko to Pushkin and Lermontov). Renko has more than a mild case of masochism, although his detached persistence is the classic 'silence, exile and cunning' approach to life as a Russian moralist, er, investigator.

The same can be said about Stalin's Ghost, where once again Renko grinds out his daily existence like a fox in a fenced triangle. As usual, everyone is out to get him, including the people he works with... and maybe the woman he sleeps with. All is treachery in the red vodka dawn. Story starts with Renko and his partner Victor pretending to be corrupt investigators from the Moscow Prosecutor's Office who will not only kill an irksome husband of a business woman (Russian brides) but also investigate the murder, make sure it is never traced back to her. Renko receives a call on his cell from his boss, Prosecutor Zurin, telling him to go immediately to the Chistye Prudy Metro Station. Yeah, it's late, it's cold and it's snowing but... Joseph Stalin's ghost has been sighted on the platform.

Is this a good opening or what? As with any Renko story nothing is what it seems, and there are lots of powerful reversals en route to the ending. You want chess? You get chess. You want Chechens? You get Chechens. You want mass graves? Homicidal lunatics and bikers? A little touch of Lara (Zhivago) in the main woman? Maybe Renko even comes back from the dead... because, in truth, he's a sort of utilitarian ghost figure himself. It's a nasty world MCS draws, a bit like the TV news, but with the complete back story. Nastiness is like a good whiskey -- nice, but it's gonna burn a little.

Nothing reveals the Soviet nightmare better than Stalin's purges and mass executions. Katyn Forest: the NKVD massacre in the Spring of 1940. Beria and the Soviet Politburo acting on Stalin's orders directed the secret police to execute 22,000 Polish officers and other citizens in order to make sure Poland would never again be a threat to the Soviet Union; ironically the massacre was discovered by the Germans. It's said that Churchill kept quiet about it for reasons of realpolitik. The event was horrible by any stretch of the imagination, a human cull of holocaust dimensions [and of course a subset of the Holocaust itself] and one which blurs the moral distinction between communism and fascism. Knowledge of this mega-atrocity has been a slow dawn in the west, more or less missed the entire generation who fought the war, and gives some ugly credence to Hitler's view that the Bolsheviks were the real enemy. If it wasn't for the fatal Polish President Lech Kaczynski plane crash near Smolensk (Russia) in 2010 en route to a commemoration ceremony at Katyn the western public would still be largely ignorant of this genocide; novels such as MCS's Stalin's Ghost (2007) and Philip Kerr's A Man Without Breath (2013) use the Katyn Forest Massacre as a macabre setting, and secular moral investigators to uncover the grim supernatural absurdity of it all. Smith's investigator Arkady Renko does some muddy grave excavation aided by a squad of bikers looking for body ID bounty and warrior (Nazi and Soviet) souvenirs, although his involvement is incidental to his homicide case; Kerr's Kripo/Gestapo detective Bernie Gunther is involved full-throttle under the direction of Joseph Goebbels, the opportunistic Nazi Minister of Propaganda. Kerr's novel is bleaker than Smith's, although his cop is every bit as brilliant as Arkady Renko... and, unlike Renko, isn't afraid to pack a gun and use it.

It's a nice way to get your history if you find the textbooks too dry and presumptuous. Western liberals would do well to study the modus operandi of Renko and Gunther; don't look to your government for your survival, look to yourself. Sure it's fiction, but is it anymore untrue than last week's news? The State is always a serial killer. Watch out, baby -- the cop who pulls you over might not be your best friend when you're in need of some literary compassion.

Well I'm driving through the forest on the back road thinking... sort of distracted... thinking... with these murder mysteries what you get is a life-style. Here it's Russian, although the most popular is British with murder. Now the form is global, a tourist itinerary for death and destruction some place you might like to go if you had the time and the money. Of course it's the job of these crime writers to draw the mysticism from an event, even if the truth can never be fully explained in social terms. Government, society, the human herd insists that the world be reduced to a binary reality. It's easier. The science of it suggests control.

Where I live is remote, the forest pretty thick and lonely; guess it has a few shallow graves. Nothing like Katyn but the odd hooker has been dumped there, a dope dealer or two... a suicide. Nuthin' industrial like Stalin or Hitler. European normal is a lot different than normal around here... but then, who knows? In the mind there is no Time and Space, just a dream waiting to be terminated.

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