Case of Moscow underground

2008-02-01 00:00

LIFE does not appear to be getting any easier for senior investigator Arkady Renko, the dogged if different hero of Martin Cruz Smith's brilliantly realised series of crime novels set in contemporary Russia.

Both his girlfriend, Eva, and his adopted son, Zhenya, seem to be slipping away from him and there is not much he can do to prevent it, while his relationship with his boss, the prosecutor Zurin, remains as fractious as ever. When the ghost of Stalin is reported to have been seen on the Moscow underground, he draws the short straw and is assigned to investigate the case, knowing full well that he could end up looking ridiculous.

Almost immediately he manages to antagonise his fellow investigator, Nikolai Isakov, a hero of the Chechen war with political ambitions and some shady connections and who likes to see himself as the living embodiment of a resurgent Russian nationalism.

This is only the beginning of Renko's problems. In the course of his investigation he is nearly garotted by a beautiful woman violinist, takes a bullet in the head and is banished to the backwater town of Tver to recuperate where he is immediately made to feel unwelcome. Various other characters, including a Russian chess grandmaster, two American spin doctors and the owner of a matrimonial agency who wants her husband killed, put in an appearance - all adding to the general confusion and air of uncertainty.

This is not to say the story is untidy or that the plotting is arbitary, since Smith has a clear focus in his purpose and keeps a steady hand at the helm. His characters develop and change along with the turbulent, often brutal, society they live in while, most importantly, the final denouement is always true to what has gone before.

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