Martin Cruz Smith brings back Detective Arkady Renko in ‘Stalin’s Ghost’

[29 June 2007]

By John Mark Eberhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

NEW YORK—After half a dozen novels, Martin Cruz Smith still hasn’t quite figured out the man he created, the cynical, haunted Russian investigator Arkady Renko.

“I think there’s more to him all the time,” Smith said in an interview at BookExpo America on the eve of his tour for the latest Renko book, “Stalin’s Ghost.” The Los Angeles Times calls it “one of his most accomplished performances yet.” Smith “takes what in essence is a police procedural and elevates it to the level of absorbing fiction.”

Renko came to life in 1981’s “Gorky Park,” the best-seller, later movie, in which he is assigned to investigate three corpses dug up in the Moscow amusement park that are missing their faces and fingertips. Apparently the detective’s flaws just made him more appealing to Smith’s audience.

Here, after all, was a man who could be patriotic even as he sneered at Soviet corruption, who took a bleak view of the human condition but was naive or foolish enough to love a woman who did not love him back, who served the ideals of justice but was regarded as an outsider or even an outcast by many of his peers.

Six books later, Renko still hasn’t emerged from the shadows. Stalin’s Ghost opens with a disturbing passage in which Renko seems to be negotiating with a woman who wants to pay him to kill her abusive husband. The strength of the scene is that the reader doesn’t know what to believe at first about Renko’s intentions. Will he do the awful deed or will he arrest the woman? Or will he do something else entirely?

It’s that kind of stance that makes Renko a compelling noir hero, his creator thinks.

“Arkady is the most reluctant possible hero,” Smith said. “He really would like to avoid a fight—except that there is a part of him that’s just begging for a fight. I do think it’s the contradictions that make a person. Picasso once said that if you could draw a perfect circle, you’d be the first one who did it. Everybody’s deviation from that perfect circle is what makes them interesting.”

The novel, as its title suggests, deals with another multifaceted figure, this one torn from the pages of Russian history: Josef Stalin, the dictator who led the Soviet Union to industrialization and to victory in World War II but also was responsible for repression, purges, deportations, executions and other heinous acts against his own people.

In “Stalin’s Ghost” one of Renko’s assignments is to probe what seems to be a series of supernatural events: Subway riders keep reporting the dictator’s specter aboard Moscow trains.

It’s a terrific plot device, but Smith said it isn’t just literal. In a much broader sense, the apparition of Stalin still hangs over post-Soviet Russia.

“They’re re-evaluating him. He’s the George Washington and the Bela Lugosi of their nation. ... Many Russians find him a beneficial figure in Russian history because he took a barefoot nation into superpowerdom.”

Clearly Smith is not content to write mere thrillers; his rangy historical, social and psychological perspectives infuse his books with a sumptuousness that transcends the standard model of whodunitry.

Smith isn’t Russian—he lives in northern California, was born in Reading, Pa., in 1942, and studied creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a bachelor’s in 1964. But he does his homework. After this book tour, in fact, he’ll head to Russia for more research—and, yes, there will be another Arkady Renko novel.

He has notched his share of honors, earning a Hammett Prize from the International Association of Crime Writers and a British award called the Golden Dagger. But what really pleases him is when a Russian acknowledges the veracity of his work.

“I’m so greedy; I’m after everything. I want all the readers. I want the most average possible reader to pick this up and enjoy it, but I also want people who are very knowledgeable about what I’m writing about to say, `He got it right.’ One of the real pleasures I get is not a prize; it’s when I run into, let’s say, a fisherman from the Bering Sea who has read Polar Star and he says, `You nailed it.’”

His research helps him achieve that, but so does that commodity so important to any good writer—curiosity.

“I’m fascinated by Russia,” Smith said, “and I think there is some genuine Russian cast to Arkady, thanks not to me but to the Russians I have known and who look on my endeavors with some bemusement. You say, `Ivan, what do you think of the new book?’ And he’ll say, `Not bad for an American.’ They’re not gushers.

“And their ideas of people are so different. They’ll be at a dinner party, and some surly guy will come in, wearing a smelly sweater, and he’ll be rude, insulting or silent. He’ll leave at the end of the evening and people will say, `What a genius!’ because they’ll see something in him that a polite American or Western European misses altogether, and part of that is something that’s very important to Russians, which is authenticity. Arkady, I think, has some of that.”

Though we will see Renko again, it’s a fool’s errand right now to ask Smith to chart the next book’s course. Like Stephen King, Smith allows for a bit of the random in his writing. He will outline but ultimately allows his books’ endings to present themselves. All he can say for now? “I want to do something a little more studied next time—something even richer.”

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