Thursday, January 08, 2009

Stalin's Ghost

Martin Cruz Smith creates atmosphere as well as mystery and danger around his Moscow detective Arkady Renko. Muscovites in the post-communist world combine modern ways with their old Russian habits -- the mixing of cultures makes them gullible to con men such as the brutal criminals (simultaneously politicians) that Renko combats in Stalin's Ghost.

Food characterizes criminal types and other types. In the apartment where Arkady encounters the first murdered body, he sees "newspapers, pizza boxes, and KFC tubs" along with blood and death (p. 35).

In contrast, a few pages later, is Arkady's own place where he and his girl friend Eva "had slept the day away next to a tray crammed with bread, strawberry jam, and tea." (p. 43) And later: "They ate in bed. Brown bread, mushrooms, pickles, sausage, and vodka." (p. 48)

Hunger stalks the street people; those who have money enjoy excesses of luxury. A suspicious American businessman eats cereal in a fancy hotel while his Russian "protection" was "starting his day with steak and a stack of blini." Arkady joins them for coffee. (p. 94-95) The Golden Khan, a "club for millionaires," features "steak tartare, naturally, and the most expensive wine list in Moscow." (p. 146) But when Arkady travels outside Moscow, he finds "No Mercedes, no Bolshoi, no sushi, no paved-over world; instead geese, apples rolling off a horse cart." (p. 207) Arkady consumes "a pirog he bought at a kiosk" (p. 212).

These brief mentions of food occur throughout the long and complex tale of deception about a sighting of Stalin's ghost, provincial politics, and a murder mystery. The final clue is in a photograph of a massacre that had happened ages before: around a campfire Chechens had been killed: "Skewers of meat, flatbread and bowls of pilaf were scattered with them." The perpetrators also held kabobs in their hands, an image that confirms their guilt. (p. 274)

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