The mystery in Stalin's Ghost is not as satisfying as some in Martin Cruz Smith's earlier work, but the writing is just excellent.
In Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, Michael Chabon argues for blurring the lines between genre fiction and mainstream literary fiction when we talk about writing. Stalin's Ghost is a perfect book to further Chabon's argument that some of the best modern writing is happening in genre fiction (mystery, science fiction, fantasy) rather than in traditional literary fiction.
When I think about how Smith's writing in Stalin's Ghost compares to some of the slapdash crap that passes for literary fiction these days I get all worked up (can you tell?). Smith's prose is just gorgeous, both poetic and precise at the same time; it's always exactly right.
The mystery is a little muddier -- what, exactly, is Arkady Renko investigating? The reported appearance of the ghost of Joseph Stalin at a Moscow subway station? Potential corruption in the OMON (the Russian Special Police)? The origins and victims of a World War II-era mass grave in the Russian city of Tver? Pretty much all of it, it seems; Renko is not one to shy away from a challenge.
Smith also presents us with an extremely unflattering portrait of modern Russia, complete with its enormous income gap, and peopled by gamblers, alcoholics, motorcycle gangs, runaways and knife-wielding thugs. It's endlessly fascinating, though occasionally a little over the top for me.
I have been following Renko's career since his earliest days as a homicide investigator in Soviet-era Moscow, in Smith's first book, Gorky Park. He's one of my all-time favorite detectives. He's getting older now, and smokes too many cigarettes and drinks too much vodka, which seems to be the fate of everyone else in Russia, too, if you believe Smith's portrayal.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.