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Uncle Joe still haunts Russia

 

A super cop wrestles the ghosts of a world ensnared in a nightmare
SHASHANK SHEKHAR | Issue Dated: July 15, 2007
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Uncle Joe still haunts Russia Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko, is easy to recall, as the eccentric third eye of the Russian police, abrupt and chancy yet deliberate when drawing conclusions towards its logical end. At a time, circa ’81, when Brezhnev and Reagan were taking the cold war to dizzying heights; emerged Martin Cruz with Arkady Renko in Gorky Park, a predecessor to the series of thrillers with Renko playing the tough cop, who single-handedly cleared the filthiest, blood-bathed alleys of Russia’s political map. Indeed, Gorky Park was amongst the foremost bestsellers that year but in no way discounting Cruz as one of those ‘feel good – nail-biting-suspense’ writers out there to make a quick buck. But in the 26 years that have followed, Cruz can be commended with having come out with few but exceptional titles.

Smith’s Arkady Renko, a bitter recluse but a brilliant detective, has seen it all and hence what comes immediately gushing to one’s mind is the nature of the backdrop – Russia in its current state, past or present. After having fought the mob in Red Square and proceeding to solve the murder mystery in the wasteland of Chernobyl in Wolves Eat Dogs three years ago, in Stalin’s Ghost, Renko ventures into the geo-political realities of the land when a case of violent domestic dispute revolving around a deceased husband with an axe’s blade cutting into his back, turns out to be a murder with political hindsights. The dead man here belongs to the Black Berets, so do the two cops to have raised Renko’s suspicions. The Black Berets being a guerilla unit responsible for the reddish hue to have marred Chechnya’s political frame.

However, in a rather terse twist of affairs, Renko is also handed over the case files to track down the source of sightings of Stalin’s ghost, when riders complain of seeing visions of dead Uncle Joe as they pull into the Old Kirov station in Moscow. And upon these sightings Renko realizes that behind these illusions lies an agenda, a conspiracy that hints of the bigger picture.

Characters from earlier Smith-Renko combines also make a mark. Eva, Renko’s love interest and a doctor, lives with her 12-year-old son Zhenya. Her affair with Nikolai Isakov, a Chechen war hero who stands to run for the senate on an ultra-nationalist ticket, takes centre stage in the story as Renko zeroes in on Isakov’s darker side despite several attempts on his life.

Martin Cruz Smith’s latest piece is beyond any doubt a reflection of Russia’s current society. Its utmost deficiency in forming an ideological order, with the mob turning the new-age millionaires and its social divide pushing young kids to opt for the easier way out. In a way, it is this state of Putin land that forms the most mesmeric character. A country whose fall last millennium “removed the barrier between Russia and the decadent West on one side and Islamic fanaticism on the other.” It is to this country that Cruz makes his most underlining point. What is a country that still looks back into its past, a horrific past of Joseph Stalin, with much nostalgia. A country that looks unsure of its future and certainly does not believe in the present. BOOK EXTRACT

“She wants proof, the same as us.” Arkady peeled adhesive tape from his stomach to free a microphone and miniature recorder. He pushed Rewind and Play, listened to a sample, turned off the recorder, ejected the cassette, and placed it in an envelope, on which he wrote, “Subject Z. K. Filotova, Senior Investigator A. K. Renko, Detective V. D. Orlov,” date and place. Victor asked, “What do we have?” “Not much. You answered the phone on another officer’s desk and a woman asked about doing in her husband. She assumed you were Detective Urman. You played along and set up a meeting...”
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017