Monday, June 18, 2007

Detective Renko and the mystery of the missing credibility

Menace in the Metro
June 15, 2007; Page W6 Wall St Journal

So a vision of Stalin haunts the Moscow subway late at night? For anyone with a sense of history, he is there all the time. The cavernous marble-clad halls and endless tunnels of that extraordinary engineering project were the workplace -- and deathplace -- of countless forced laborers, the human fuel of the Stalinist command economy.

But the vision of Stalin that Arkady Renko, the pariah of the Moscow prosecutor's office, is assigned to investigate is not an echo of the past but a present-day stunt that promises a sinister future. Martin Cruz Smith's "Stalin's Ghost" is the sixth outing for the somber, reflective Renko; his first, in "Gorky Park" (1981), was a rare appearance in Western Cold War fiction of a "real" Soviet Russian. Mr. Smith still manages to mix a convincingly humdrum backdrop of gritty daily life in Moscow with a lively -- perhaps too lively -- plot. Renko, his personal and professional lives troubled and tangled, is up against Russia's most up-to-date demons: Kremlin-sponsored extremists in cahoots with foreign consultants and brutalized veterans of the Chechen wars.

The author clearly prizes authenticity. His command of physical detail is fastidious: Anyone who has not examined the corpses in a Russian morgue, suffered brain damage or excavated a battlefield (all in fairly quick succession) will finish this book with a good idea of what to expect. More important, Mr. Smith also expertly captures Russia's repellent contrasts between wealth and poverty, humanity and hatred.

The characters are a bit less realistic but richly drawn. Renko's horrible Soviet-era childhood, when he was tortured by his father, is mirrored by the patricidal feelings of his half-adopted son, Zhenya, a young, troubled chess genius who lives on the streets. Stalin, the most perverse father figure imaginable, looms over the whole story -- and the whole country.

The terse, witty dialogue is a treat, though it may jar readers who know Russia. The people there usually address each other by first name and patronymic -- so President Vladimir Putin, son of another Vladimir, would be called "Vladimir Vladimirovich." Close friends use diminutive versions of their first names (Mr. Putin is "Volodya" or "Vova"). Admittedly, both forms of address can look a bit odd in English. Neither appears in the book. Instead the characters, sounding quite Anglo-Saxon, 8frequently call each other by their surnames.

Late-Night Sightings

Other weaknesses are more serious. Russian policemen and prosecutors do not, as a rule, pay much attention to practical jokes -- and that is what the subway ghost appearances too obviously are. A ragbag of passengers reporting late-night sightings of Stalin would be more likely to attract a curt rebuke than a dogged investigation. This improbability undermines the elaborate plot, which is further weakened by rather too frequent lucky escapes and convenient coincidences.

By Martin Cruz Smith
(Simon & Schuster, 333 pages, $26.95)

The most puzzling question, though, is whether someone as honest, determined and loving as Renko could ever have started work in a place as corrupt and brutal as the Moscow prosecutor's office, much less survive there for years. The story begins, on an entirely credible note, with a woman who wants the agents of law and order to murder her errant husband. Thereafter corruption and political pressure are central themes in "Stalin's Ghost," but somehow they never ultimately define -- as they ought to -- Renko's everyday life at the office. The Russian prosecution service, perhaps the least reformed sector of the country's whole criminal-justice system, is itself a Stalinist ghost, a fact that goes unremarked by the author.

A gruesome scene in which the excavations for a new basement coffee shop in the supreme-court building uncovers a mass grave -- victims of instant Stalinist justice -- is all too horribly believable, as is its hurried coverup. Renko, passing by chance, is told by a pompous police colonel: "I can assure everyone that there will be an investigation of the dead to see whether criminal charges will be brought." Renko puts his arm around the officer's shoulders and says: "Congratulations. That's the best joke I have heard all day."

Brainy, Diligent

Why Renko is not fired or even murdered for scoffing at the coverup of the mass grave -- or for subverting his office's other sleazy doings -- is barely less puzzling than why a brainy, diligent, English-speaking workaholic does not look for work elsewhere. Modern Russia offers plenty of jobs for such people: Some such paths in life even allow you to preserve an honest reputation. Renko's lingering professional pride (in what, Russian justice?) and vague distaste for carrying a briefcase hardly seem reason enough for him to keep going at his ill-paid and dangerous work.

The only plausible answer is that fate -- or rather Mr. Smith -- keeps giving him fascinating cases and lucky breaks. Saving your country from fascism, winning back your beloved girlfriend from your maniac adversary and rescuing a tormented waif -- not bad going for a few weeks' work.

But it's not quite enough. For Mr. Smith to join the first rank in his field, he needs to create characters, like John le Carré's George Smiley, so convincing that the reader can imagine them leading their lives independent of the author's guiding hand. Though Arkady Renko's grit, guts and laconic humor are certainly appealing, they do not outweigh the basic flaws in the story of his life and work. Setting his detective novels in Russia has served Mr. Smith well. But the exotic backdrop constrains credibility just a little too much.

Mr. Lucas is the Central and Eastern Europe correspondent of the Economist.

1 comment:

T said...

Not very tempting.