Arkady Renko: 26 years later, he's still on the job

America's favorite Russian detective chases 'Stalin's Ghost' in a new novel by Martin Cruz Smith

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When Russian detective Arkady Renko first appeared in "Gorky Park" it was 1981. Ronald Reagan was busy writing his "evil empire" speech, the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer was the most anticipated event of the year, and most of us still needed a quarter if we wanted to make a phone call from the street.

Today, the Soviet Union, the Wales's marriage, and pay phones all belong to history. Yet Arkady Renko lives on.

In Stalin's Ghost, author Martin Cruz Smith allows the laconic sleuth with the brooding Slavic psyche only his sixth outing in a quarter of a century. But fans of the Renko series focus on quality, not quantity. (And this time it's been less than three years since the last Renko book – one of the shorter waits his readers have endured.)

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The world around Renko has, of course, changed dramatically since the first time we saw him investigating a triple murder in a Moscow park. The city he once knew has become "a realm of empty, half-lit shopping malls, auto showrooms and the sulphurous blaze of all-night casinos." This is "an ambitious new Moscow."

But Renko himself is much as we've always known him. Smart and resourceful, he pursues wrongdoers relentlessly even as he exudes his own uniquely Russian brand of world-weary cynicism. Personally, Renko's world seems remarkably unchanged: his relationship with a divorced Ukranian doctor is crumbling and he's busy pursuing cases that no one else wants.

This time around it's an investigation into reports that people are seeing Stalin's ghost on the Moscow metro. A ridiculous affair, everyone agrees, "a matter we may not even want on the books," says Renko's boss, but still, one that merits "a humane, informal inquiry by a veteran."

So our veteran heads down the subway stairs (where iPod cords now dangle from passengers' ears) and gets to work. But Stalin's isn't the only ghost he encounters.

Memories of his father, General Kyril Renko ("a talented butcher, not a sensitive soul at all" and a crony of Stalin's) trouble Arkady throughout the novel, as do concerns about Zhenya, the teenage chess prodigy he has unofficially adopted.

And as is the case throughout the Renko series – despite the neatly crafted plotline Smith spins for us, which includes a blood-soaked World War II battlefield and a pair of corrupt detectives who are also veterans of the war in Chechnya – in the end it's the detective himself (and the country he loves in spite of it all) that intrigue us most.

Will Renko grasp a moment of happiness? And if so, does that mean there's a spark of hope for the new Russia?

It seems incredible now to remember that Smith's first publishers passed on "Gorky Park" because he refused to turn his star detective into an American. Little did they imagine how heartily Western readers would embrace a nuanced Russian hero who could take them into his mysterious country through the back door.

Today, tourists are free to enter Russia by any door they like. But that doesn't necessarily render the country any less mysterious or the solitary, tenacious investigator any less appealing as a guide.

Twenty-six years have passed, but Arkady Renko's work is far from done.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.

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