Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith








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Martin Cruz Smith has reprised Senior Investigator Arkady Renko for the sixth time in his new novel, Stalin’s Ghost. Renko stumbles on a murder for hire scheme that appears connected to fellow police officers while investigating reports that Stalin had been sighted in subway stations in Moscow. The trail leads to Chechnya, war crimes past and present, buried bodies, and, as usual, Renko digging holes for himself. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 3, pp. 32-37:


A heavyset man in underclothes sat at the kitchen table, his head resting on his forearm, a cleaver standing in the back of his neck. One forensic tech­nician videotaped the scene while another peeled the dead man’s hand from a water glass. Vodka was still in it, Isakov told Arkady. A tech poured half the dead man’s glass into a vial to test later for rat poison, which would show premeditation. Crusted dishes, pickle bottles and glittering empties of vodka were piled in a corner to make room on the drain board for open packages of sugar and yeast, and in the sink for a pressure cooker, rubber hoses and plastic tub­ing. Alcohol formed at the end of a tube, hung and dripped into a jar. Otherwise, the kitchen was decorated with a mounted wolf head and bushy tail, a tapestry with a hunting motif and a photo­graph of the dead man and a woman as two people younger and happier. The refrigerator hummed, speckled with blood. Snow fid­geted with a loose windowpane. For the moment no one smoked, despite the flatulent stink of death. According to a cuckoo clock it was 4:55.

Arkady waited at the door with Nikolai Isakov and Marat Urman. Arkady had imagined Isakov so many times that the real man was smaller than expected. He wasn’t particularly handsome, but his blue eyes suggested coolness under fire and his forehead bore interesting scars. His leather jacket was scuffed from wear and his voice was almost whispery. Arkady’s father had always said that the ability to command was innate; men would either follow you or not. Whatever the quality was, Isakov had it. His partner Urman was a Tatar built round and hard, with the broad smile of a success­ful pillager. A raspberry red leather jacket and a gold tooth revealed a taste for flash.

“It seems to be a case of cabin fever,” Isakov said. “The wife says they hadn’t left the house since it started snowing.”

“Started like a honeymoon.” Urman grinned.

Isakov said, “It appears that they could drink vodka faster than they could make it.”

“At the end they were fighting over the last drop of alcohol in the house. Both so drunk they can barely stand. He starts hitting her.

“Apparently one thing led to another.”

“She slices him between the sixth and seventh vertebrae and right through the spinal cord. Instantaneous!”

The cleaver had been dusted with gray powder and the ghostly print of a palm and fingers was wrapped around the handle.

“Does he have a name?” Arkady asked.

Kuznetsov,” said Isakov. Selecting a professional tone, he com­miserated with Arkady. “So you got stuck with Stalin’s ghost.”

I’m afraid so.

“Chasing a phantom through the Metro? Urman and I prefer ordinary cases with real bodies.”

“Well, I envy you.” Which hardly told the whole story, but Arkady thought he was controlling his bitterness fairly well. He stole a glance at the clock: 4:56. His watch said 5:05. “I had a ques­tion about the phantom, as you put it. I was wondering, did either of you search the subway platform?”


“Open any maintenance gates or doors?”


“Why did you let the platform conductor leave the station?” It came out more brusquely than Arkady had intended.

“That’s more than one question. Because the conductor didn’t see anything.” Isakov was patient. “People who weren’t crazy, we let go.”

“What else, besides seeing Stalin, did they say or do that was crazy?”

Urman said, “Seeing Stalin, that’s crazy enough.”

“Did you get the number of the car?”


“Every car in the Metro has a four-digit number. I’d like to see that car. Did you get the name of the driver of the train?”

Isakov was categorical. “We were ordered to ride the last car, whatever its number was, and observe. We were not told what to watch for or at which station or to get the driver’s name. When we pulled into the Chistye Prudy stop we saw nothing and heard noth­ing unusual until people started to shout. I don’t know who shouted first. As instructed, we separated the positive witnesses from the rest of the passengers and held them until we were called out on this case.”

The forensic team announced that they were finished with the kitchen and moving to the bathroom, where shiny surfaces beck­oned.

Arkady waited until the techs had passed before saying, “Your report was a little sketchy.”

“The prosecutor didn’t want an official report,” Isakov said.

Urman was puzzled. “Why all the fucking questions? We’re on the same side, aren’t we?”

Don’t complicate things, Arkady told himself. This wasn’t his case. Get out of the apartment.

A whimper sounded from another room.

“Who is that?”

“It’s the wife.”

“She’s here?”

“In the bedroom. Take a look, but watch where you step.”

Arkady went down a hail littered with newspapers, pizza boxes and KFC tubs to a bedroom where the squalor was deep enough it seemed to float. A redheaded woman in a housedress was hand­cuffed to the bed. She rose out of an alcoholic stupor, legs and arms spread, hands in plastic bags. An array of blood spots covered the front of her dress. Arkady pushed up her sleeves. Her flesh was slack but by a comparison of forearms she was right-handed.

“How do you feel?”

“They took the dragon.”

“They took what?”

“It’s our dragon.”

“You have a dragon?”

The mental effort was too much and she sank back into incoher­ence.

He returned to the kitchen.

“Someone took her dragon.”

“We heard it was elephants,” Urman said.

“Why is she still here?”

Isakov said, “Waiting for an ambulance. She already confessed. We hoped she could reenact the crime for the video camera.”

“She should be seen by a doctor and in a cell. Save the house­dress. How long have you two been detectives in Moscow?”

“A year.” Urman had lost his good humor.

“You moved over to detective level direct from the Black Berets? From Hostage Rescue to Criminal Investigation?”

“Maybe they bent the rules for Captain Isakov,” Urman said. “Why the fuss? We have a murder and a confession. It’s two plus two, right?”

“With one swing. She must have had a steady hand,” Arkady said.

“Just lucky, I guess.”

“Do you mind?” Arkady stepped behind the dead man for a dif­ferent perspective. One arm still stretched out for the glass. With­out touching, Arkady studied the wrist for bruising from, say, being clamped down by a stronger man while a blow was struck.

Urman said, “I’ve heard about you, Renko. People say you like to stick your dick in. We didn’t have time for people like you in the Black Berets. Second guessers. What are you looking for now?”


“To what? Do you see any bruises?”

“Did you try a UV scan?”

“What is this shit?”

“Marat.” Isakov shook his head. “Marat, the investigator is only asking questions born of experience. There’s no reason to be taking it personally. He’s not.” He asked as if making sure, “You’re not tak­ing this personally are you, Renko?”


Isakov didn’t smile, but he did seem amused. “Now, Renko, you’ll have to excuse us if we work our own case our own way. Is there anything else you want to know?”

“Why were you so certain the glass held vodka? Did you just as­sume it?”

There was still some in the glass. Urman dipped his first and middle fingers and licked them. He dipped the fingers a second time and offered them to Arkady. “You can suck them if you want.”

Arkady ignored Urman and asked Isakov, “So you’re satisfied what you have here is an ordinary domestic homicide due to vodka, snow and cabin fever?”

“And love,” Isakov said. “The wife says she loved him. Most dangerous words in the world.”

“So you think love leads to murder,” Arkady said.

“Let’s hope not.”


Renko is a survivor, mostly of the many changes in Russia during his life. Stalin’s Ghost is a fine addition to this entertaining series.  


Steve Hopkins, July 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the August 2007 issue of Executive Times


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