Stalin's Ghost is a real page turner. I could hardly put it down when my eyes grew heavy at 2 a.m. No one writes about Russia like Martin Cruz Smith, and in Stalin's Ghost you will see past, present, and future of that volatile country combined in a marvelously powerful way.
Arkady Renko is back in Moscow, but his life is at a low ebb. Renko's relationship with Eva (whom he met in Wolves Eat Dogs) is being destroyed as she's drawn into living with Detective Nikolai Isakov. Zhenya, Renko's surrogate son, has stopped coming home, and Renko can't find him. Prosecutor Zurin wants nothing to do with Renko: He has a terrible habit of investigating too much!
Matters take an unexpected turn, however, when Victor accidentally picks up a phone call at the police station from a woman who wants to hire a hit on her husband. Could it be that the police are committing crimes and then covering their tracks through a cursory investigation? Soon, Arkady and Victor are meeting with the prospective client and getting the job.
Out of nowhere, Zurin decides that Renko should take over the politically sensitive investigation of reported sightings of Josef Stalin in a subway station where he used to come during World War II air raids. On the way to the station, Renko stumbles on a building crew that finds a mass grave under Supreme Court. Where are all the bodies buried?
Renko is surprised to find that his sexual rival, Isakov, is also involved in investigating the Stalin sighting . . . but seems to be doing a poor job of it. Following up with Isakov, Renko also finds that other investigations are going peculiarly. What's the agenda here?
Gradually, we learn that Isakov is in a parliamentary race based on his reputation as a Russian hero during the second war in Chechnya. Naturally, Renko can't let it go at that and pursues the truth . . . no matter where it leads. In the process, he learns some important truths about Eva, Zhenya, Isakov, and Stalin. All roads lead backward in time to reveal those truths. Renko will be in mortal danger from remorseless killers throughout the story. You'll be haunted by his experience, I'm sure.
The book is filled with wonderfully evocative metaphors for Renko's investigative work, usually presented in terms of digging up the past in some physical form or by digging through one's mind to employ old knowledge to solve current problems. The book literally drips in bloody looks into the dark infamy of Stalin and those who served him, including Renko's father. You'll get the idea that Stalin wasn't an exception in the Russian character, but rather an extreme expression of the desire to hold power and gain advantage at any cost.
I found it hard to imagine how this book could have been plotted or developed any better. It's a remarkable thriller built around the imagery of a tiny light of goodness against the pervasive darkness of evil.